Chapter 13

Tamara’s Childhood


Tamara Maria was born around 1340 -1341, almost 10 years after her father was proclaimed Tsar of Bulgaria. 24   While Maria was the name of her Christian Orthodox baptism, she came to be fondly called Kera Tamara – Lady Tamara – by the nation. Tamara was an old Jewish name, meaning “Phoenician palm tree.” 10  In folk songs she was also called Mara, which conveniently can be the abbreviation of either of her Christian names. 

Tamara was born about 20 years after her parents’ marriage, when her mother was possibly 38 – 40 years old.  Her oldest brother Michael Asen was already an adult and an experienced soldier at the age of 19, who had 4 – 5 years of marriage behind his back.  Her second brother Ivan Stratzimir was also mature man at the age of 17 and a soldier.  Her youngest brother Ivan Asen( IVth) was born in 1328 and by the time Tamara was born was about 14 years old.

It is highly likely that Tamara’s name was chosen in deference to Ivan Asen II, who had a daughter called Tamara (as seen from previous chapters). It is clear that Ivan Alexander recognised the political value of linking his children to this legendary Tsar.  Ivan Asen, the third son, was the complete namesake of Ivan Asen II.  Later on Ivan Alexander will have another son whom he will call Ivan Asen from his second wife – Theodora II.  The choice of names selected aimed to emphasise further the continuity of bloodline and tradition.

Just a year after Tamara’s birth, in 1342 the sources inform us of a visit of The Serbian Queen Elena, the sister of Ivan Alexander, wife of Stefan Dushan to Tirnovo.  She had arrived to discuss joint actions between her brother and her husband and to visit her relatives. 3 Queen Elena took regular trips to Tirnovo 24 and she would have definitely formed a relationship with young Tamara over the coming years.

We have no data to prove whether Tamara ever visited her grandparents in Walachia or her aunt in Serbia and it is difficult to speculate – although the distance in present day terms is not great, travel at the time was difficult.  We know, however, that Elena made a number of trips to Tirnovo.

 Ivan Alexander sponsored another monastery – some 15 kilometres from the Rock monastery of Ivanovo, in which he is pictured as a donor with his wife. The opening of this monastery would almost certainly have provoked a visit from Tamara’s Walachian relatives as Ivan Bassarab also contributed to its foundation. 11, 12

Bassarabski Monastery is situated near present day Russe on the River Danube (10 km from the city).  The area surrounding the river called Russenski Lom is full of limestone cliffs, which were used by Hesychist monks to dig cliff cells and live there in isolation in silence. The Hesychist movement reached the height of its popularity in this century.  It maintained that one could only approach God’s spiritual essence through fasting, isolation and continuous prayer. 11, 12

Ivanovo is further down the same river and is also a rock monastery and a typical Hesychist centre – the monastery complex appears to have been very large, but unfortunately many of the caves are dug out, desecrated and damaged by treasure hunters in communist times.  

There is a mention in an 0ttoman tax register from the Nikopol sanjack (area), which was dated at being from 1479 -14780 (quoted by Prof. Strashimir Dimitrov) as a timar (estate), belonging to Ivanko Bassarab – Ivan Alexander’s father-in-law.  So the name of the village is mentioned for the first time as “Monastery Bassaraba”. 11, 13   

Tamara would have had a nurse-maid, who would have breast-fed her as a baby and then looked after her for the first 2 or 3 years of her life.  Most likely the nurse would have been the wife of a local officer in the garrison, who had children herself.  It is likely that as Tamara grew older, she would have had a priest (religious instructor) to give her the religious knowledge needed by a young princess.  Considering the respect her father had for culture and education, she could have been taught to read and write, possibly in Bulgarian and Greek.  It is known that the Bulgarian Royal family had a person responsible for the Royal children’s education, called in a Greek fashion pedagogue.   (One unnamed pedagogue left Bulgaria in the 12th century with the princes Asen and Alexander in their flight north after the murder of their uncle Kaloyan. 6)  Tamara would have also been taught to ride a horse, embroider and dance, possibly to play an instrument.  She would have sung from an early age.

In the winter she attended the seasonal feasts.  Indeed her presence would in time have been required at her father’s every official appearance.  These would include visits by foreign dignitaries including of course members of the family, the arrival of ambassadors and other delegations. She would of course be involved in the celebration of the name days of the family.

She would have participated in other seasonal activities such as hunting, sledging and snowball fights.  In the summer there would have been wrestling contests.  The better weather and improved travelling conditions would allow for visits to relatives (including her grandparents) and monasteries.  Around and within the capital there would be harvest fairs which would attract traders and ambulant artists, travelling singers and story tellers, etc.  Preparations for weddings would have been eagerly planned.

Against the security of childhood regulated by seasonal events, Tamara must have begun from an early age to understand the dangerous world in which her father had to operate. By the time she was four her father had become embroiled in a military campaign necessitated by a struggle for power taking place in the Byzantine Empire.

The peace between Bulgaria and Byzantium lasted until the death of Andronicus III, after which Bulgaria got involved in the struggle for dominance between two of the nominated Regents for his young son John V Paleologus – the Empress Mother, Anna of Savoy and John Cantacuzenus

In 1344 – Anna of Savoy, representing her young son, turned to Ivan Alexander for help and support against Cantacuzenus. 1, 4   At the time John Cantacuzenus was fighting in Macedonia and Thrace.  Ivan Alexander’s reward for this was to be the annexation of 9 Rhodop towns: Philipopolis, Tzepina, Krichim, Stanimaka, Perushtitza, Sveta Justna, Aetos, Beden and Kostnik to the territory of Bulgaria. 4, 26 This is the last territorial expansion during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom and one of the successes of Ivan Alexander’s external politics!  As a result, without tremendous haste, Ivan Alexander brought his army to the Rhodop Mountains but after successfully taking over the fortress of Perperikon 1, he was threatened by the Turkish mercenaries, supporting Cantacuzenus, and so he withdrew from his commitment. 7 He sent a message to Empress that he could not help, while the Turks were in the area – to let him know when they had gone and that then he would be very willing to help against Cantacuzenus. 19

Desperate for help, the Empress contacted the Boyar Balik (who the reader remembers as a member of the Terter family).  He agreed to help and during the summer of 1346 sent his brothers Theodore and Dobrotiza with 1000 soldiers.  On their way down to Constantinople, the brothers used their reputation to convince the Governors of all cities, they passed going down the Black Sea coast to change allegiance to the Empress.  This may have been done with the tacit agreement of Ivan Alexander, as at the time the Black Sea Coast was within the Bulgarian boundary.  Whether this is so or not – Ivan Alexander himself did not involve himself in the conflict. 26

The finding of a large number of Serbian coins in the Dobrudja Despotate may have something to do with the support the brothers were getting from Stephan Dushan – his brother-in-law, whom Ivan Alexander did not want to aggravate, which allowed Balik and his brothers certain independence. 26

The brother’s army arrived in Constantinople, where they were extremely well received by the empress Anna of Savoy.  She was particularly taken with Dobrotiza, whom she made a strategus (leader) of her army.  She also arranged for his marriage to the daughter of the Mega Duke Alexios Apokaukos,(who according to Georgi Atanasov was through her mother was a grand-daughter of the old Emperor and thus a Byzantine Princess).  This brought him the Despot’s title, but he lost the military conflict with Contacuzenus’s army. 26

The resolution of the conflict was achieved without Ivan Alexander’s participation – eventually in Cantacuzenus’ favour.  Cantacuzenus’ next obstacle, on his way to establishing himself on the Byzantine throne, was the Bulgarian Boyar Momchil, who controlled lands in the Rhodops.  He was a good example of the growing separatism in Bulgaria at the time.

With regents fighting each other for the Byzantine throne, with the involvement of Turkish mercenaries, with the withdrawal of the Bulgarian Tsar from the Rhodops, news in Tirnovo would have focused on the changing allegiances of a local ruler, who was destined to become a national hero.

Momchil had joined the Byzantine army after a period of leading a group of brigands.  After a while, he left Byzantium and offered his services to Stephan Dushan in Serbia. 19   In 1342 Momchil returned to Constantinople and was soon appointed by John Cantacuzenus as an Administrative ruler in the area of Meropa – around the upper sections of the River Arda in the Rhodopes.  After settling and gaining the support of the local population, Momchil switched sides and pledged loyalty to Ana of Savoy – he did not approve of Cantacuzenos’ union with the Turks. His bold actions may have been inspired by the fact that by then, he had gathered an army of about 300 horsemen and 5,000 foot-soldiers. 1, 8

Early in 1344 Momchil attacked the nearby Aegean port of Abdera and set fire to 3 out of the 15 ships sent by the Turks to help Cantacuzenus.   A large number of soldiers, guarding the vessels were also killed. 8 Although there was no truth in the initial message that all the ships were burned and all the soldiers were killed, this infuriated both Cantacuzenus and Umur Bay, the Turkish commander. 7   They could not wait to obtain revenge on Momchil.19

They met his forces near Mosinopolis, where Momchil won the battle and Cantacuzenus had to be given someone else’s horse to be able to save himself!   Momchil did not lose any time in sending messengers to Anna of Savoy to ask for his reward – she responded by giving him a Despot’s title.  Momchil, however, also sent messengers to the other side, asking John Cantacuzenus for forgiveness, which he got and when he realised that Anna had made Momchil a Despot and John gave him the title of Sevastocrator.  13 Momchil did not keep to either ally and continued to raid the territories of both.  Eventually, he proclaimed himself as an independent ruler and took a large area of land around Meropa. 19

Momchil and his soldiers became once again a thorn in the flesh for John Cantacuzenus and an obstacle to his army.  On the 7th of July 1345 the Byzantine troops, supported by Turkish divisions, led by Umur Pasha fought a battle with Momchil’s army of 5,000 soldiers, killed him and took over his estates.  Cantacuzenus treated Momchil’s wife with much understanding and commiseration – she was allowed to keep all her possessions and given the choice to stay on Byzantine soil or go back to Bulgaria, as she was Bulgarian.  She opted to go to Bulgaria.19

On the 2 February 1347 Cantacuzenus entered Constantinople and shortly after that was proclaimed as Emperor. 2   He later agreed to make John V Paleologus his co ruler, marrying him to his daughter Helena.

Momchil was in fact the only Boyar who fought the Turks, during their several raids on Bulgaria – in 1346, 1347 and then in 1349. 4   He was fondly remembered by the Bulgarian people for his daring attempt to carve himself a place at the table with the major players of Balkan politics of the time and for fighting the Turks.  In Bulgarian folklore he is a “brave hero” and his name is still remembered fondly by the nation. 8

One can only imagine the impact of the news of these events in the Tirnovo court. Ivan Alexander who had initially tried to take advantage of the Regents’ conflict had been upstaged and sidelined by a former brigand who for a while had succeeded in setting himself up as an independent ruler in what had been Bulgarian territory and had only been defeated with the help of Turkish mercenaries.

With John Cantacuzenus in the ascendant, and Momchil eliminated, Tamara’s father needed new friends.  In 1347 Ivan Alexander signed a commercial treaty with the Republic of Venice, confirming good relations and their right to trade in Bulgaria. 7 These trade links would have added greatly to the cultural life of the Tirnovo court, bringing new products from the west through the Danube ports.

When she was four or five years old, Tamara Maria would have been present at the wedding of her brother Ivan Asen, who married a Walachian princess – the 14 – 15 years old young Helena, probably a first or second cousin from the Bassarab clan – she is mentioned in folk songs under that name. 21, 22, 23    This wedding took place sometimes around 1344 or 1345.  Her brother received an area to rule – possibly the Preslav region, which would have included Black Sea ports. 5

During this time the presence of the Turks in the Balkans increased.  When in need of their fighting power, the Byzantine rulers did not hesitate to compromise in order to receive it. We have already noted the use John Cantacuzenus made of Umur Beg from the Aydin.   In 1346 the Emperor John Cantacuzenus gave his 16 yeas old daughter Theodora as a wife to Orhan – the Ottoman Sultan at the time, with the aim of gaining a powerful supporter.  The theatrical ceremony of the wedding did not obscure the fact, reported by a Chronicler from the house of Aydin, that when on a previous occasion Cantacuzenus had needed help from Umur Beg of Aydin he had offered him the same daughter. 3 We will return to Theodora’s wedding later, but this worth pointing out that it provided another precedent for a Christian princess becoming the consort of a Muslim ruler.

On the 16th of April 1346 (Easter) Stefan Dushan organised a large assembly, which agreed to raise the rank of the Serbian Archbishop to a Patriarch.  The new Patriarch then proclaimed Dushan as “Tsar of Serbia, Albania, Prince of the Bulgarian Empire and master of almost all the Roman empire.”  A short time after that, he amended this to “Emperor and Autocrat of Serbia and Romania” .14

In 1345 Stefan Dushan sent ambassadors to Venice to acquire the Senate’s help in attacking and taking over Constantinople.  After several embassies, many different demands (including Venetian citizenship for himself, his wife and his son) and many years’ negotiation, Venice appeared to decline their participation in the proposed war, but did not hesitate to offer him arms to buy. 14

In 1347 – 1348 Stefan Dushan and Queen Elena visited the Hilendar Monastery in Mount Athon, trying to avoid the plague, raging on the Balkans. Women have never been allowed to set foot there to this day; Tamara’s aunt Elena was the only woman ever, to whom this special exception was granted so that she could accompany her husband.  The monastery was rewarded for “the sacrifice” with large donations of land and money. 9, 24

Stefan Dushan began to reward his supporters by giving them estates to rule.  The Boyar Zharko was given the Macedonian lands up to the river Vardar.  He was described by Mavro Orbini to be “a man, famous for his good character, the first after the Tsar.”   Bogdan received lands from Serres to the river Vardar.  The brothers Vulkashin (who was Stefan Dushan’s cup-barer) and Uglesha (groom or riding master) received the lands in the south of Serbia.  The Kostur area was given to Nikola Hlapen.25

In Tirnovo Ivan Alexander was re-assessing who would be his successor – Michel Asen, who by then was in charge of the Vidin area of Bulgaria, did not have any children after a few years of marriage, while Ivan Stratsimir, although younger, did.  This led to a change and Ivan Stratsimir was pronounced as a successor.