The Seljuqs of Rum

The Seljuqs of Rum, or Anatolian Seljuqs (Turkish: Anadolu Selcuklulari), were the first major Turkish state in what was to become Turkey. An offshoot of the greater Seljuq Empire, the Rum Seljuqs would eventually outlast their kin, and their legacy would be an inspiration for all future Turkish realms in Anatolia.

All branches of the Seljuqs had a common origin. Among historians, it is widely accepted the Seljuqs were a ruling clan of a significant section of a vast Turkish tribal confederacy known as the Ghuzz or Oghuz. In the 11th Century two Seljuq leaders, brothers, Tughrul Beg and Chagri Beg, defeated the Ghaznavids in northern Iran. With the floodgates open the Ghuzz poured into Iran and within less than a decade they had captured Baghdad, the center of Sunni Islamic legitimacy and invested with vast authority by the Abbasid caliph. In 1063, the architect of the newfound Seljuq Empire, Tughrul, died. For a time it seemed war would break out between the successors of Tughrul, endangering all they had gained. Eventually, the conflict boiled down between Qutlumish and Alp Arslan, Tughrul’s cousin and nephew respectively. Alp Arslan won the contest, but he mourned the death of a member of his family and vowed to treat Qutlumish’s heirs well. Alp Arslan would go on to expand Seljuq power, bringing it into conflict with the premier superpower in the Middle East, the Roman Empire (incorrectly known as the Byzantine Empire). In 1071 Alp Arslan won a decisive victory over the Romans at the battle of Manzikert, changing the region forever. The Seljuqs would divide the spoils of victory between the commanders who contributed the most to victory. Among these was the son of Qutlumish, and the founder of the Sultanate of Rum, Suleiman.

Within a year of Manzikert the great Alp Arslan was dead and was succeeded by his son Malik Shah. The new sultan was wary of Suleiman, and with good reason, he was ambitious and had the talent to back it up. To keep his cousin away from Baghdad, Malik Shah made Suleiman and his sons the leaders of all Turkmen in Anatolia. The decision was met with much grumbling from the other leaders, but Suleiman was able to quiet them. Taking advantage of the civil wars in Roman territory Suleiman played the differing candidates to the purple off each other and used the distraction to conquer vast swaths of Anatolia. Asia Minor was now lost to the empire and to drive this point home Suleiman made the city of Nicaea, a scant sixty miles from Constantinople itself, his capital. In 1081, the Roman Empire stabilized with the ascension of Alexios Komnenos to the purple. Suleiman and Alexios reached an agreement to stay clear of the other, allowing the Seljuq leader to turn his attention east. In 1084, he captured Antioch, which had been thought unconquerable (every attempt by Muslims to conquer the city since 969 had failed). Within two years, Suleiman believed his power, which encompassed nearly the entirety of Anatolia, plenty enough to warrant independence from Isfahan, the capital of the greater Seljuq empire. To make this clear to Malik Shah, Suleiman laid siege to the city of Aleppo, an important stepping-stone to Damascus, the key to the Holy Land. As it turned out Tutush, the Sultan of Syria, would march to Aleppo’s relief. During a battle with Tutush Suleiman was slain (in some accounts he took his own life). His family was captured and sent to Malik Shah. With the death of Suleiman the first period of the Sultanate of Rum ended.

Several years would pass before the recreation of the sultanate. In 1092 Malik Shah died and civil war between his brothers and sons broke out, splitting the Greater Seljuqs. Taking advantage of the chaos the son of Suleiman, Kilij Arslan, escaped to Anatolia. Even though he was just thirteen Kilij Arslan regained the city of Nicaea, and from there he rebuilt his father’s sultanate. In just four years, he had recovered nearly all the territory his father once held, and Kilij Arslan would triumphantly declare himself Sultan of Rum. But his triumph was short-lived, the Danishmendids, who had been among those given land by Alp Arslan following Manzikert, posed a threat that Kilij Arslan could not ignore. But this too was short lived. For unknown to the Seljuqs and the Danishmendids alike the Roman Emperor Alexios had called for aid from the West.

The Pope, the spiritual leader of Western Christianity, had responded to this plea with an appeal for a crusade, a holy war, to reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslims. In 1096, the first wave of this crusade, the Peasant’s Crusade of Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, arrived in Anatolia. Suddenly a threat bigger than anything he could have imagined was here. The Seljuq army abruptly changed directions, and the young sultan destroyed the Peasant’s Crusade masterfully. With that taken care of Kilij Arslan turned his attention to the Danishmendids. Unbeknownst to the Seljuqs a much larger and well-organized crusade was coming. But when Kilij Arslan was told of the arrival of this new body of Crusaders he dismissed them, after all he had crushed the first Crusaders that arrived, what had he to fear of these new men? But that was perhaps the biggest mistake he would ever make. In 1097, Kilij Arslan received word that a combined force of Crusaders and Romans were besieging his capital at Nicaea. The sultan rushed to his capital but arrived too late to do anything, the Crusaders defeated him handily, and the city fell. Alexios took possession of the city to the chagrin of the Crusaders and custody of Kilij Arslan’s family. In a much-criticized decision the Emperor later returned the sultan’s family unharmed, because of their mutual respect for each other. Realizing by now that these new Crusaders were different than anything he had known before Kilij Arslan formed an alliance with the Danishmendids to stand united against this foe. At the battle of Dorylaeum, the united Turkish army was destroyed. To those that survived it seemed like a reverse Manzikert had been inflicted on the Turks. The Crusaders pressed on, and the Sultanate of Rum was reduced to little more than the plains of eastern Anatolia.

The First Crusade was perhaps the Sultanate of Rum’s darkest hour. To Kilij Arslan, it seemed like the end was near as the Crusaders reduced his territory bit by bit, but once it became apparent the destruction of the Seljuqs was not their goal he rebuilt his power. When the Crusade of 1101 began, the Seljuqs had already adapted to the Western style of warfare. In several months, Kilij Arslan broke the myth of Crusader invincibility that had settled over the Muslim world, by wiping out three crusader armies one after the other. With these victories, Seljuq power spread once more and central Anatolia was regained from the Romans. Even the Danishmendids began to falter, and the Seljuqs made gains against them. In 1107, the great conqueror turned his attention to Baghdad, and he marched towards that city. However at Mosul the Great Seljuqs were able to halt his advance and Kilij Arslan died shortly after that by drowning.

The Seljuqs were on the rise once more. The successor of Kilij Arslan was named, ironically, Malik Shah. But this Malik Shah was weak and none too bright. His reign was dominated by an ill-advised war with the Romans. Taking advantage of his brother’s unpopularity another son, named Mas’ud, dethroned Malik Shah in a coup in 1116. In contrast to Malik Shah, Mas’ud was more interested in rebuilding domestically and making friends with the Romans. But he was also a warrior. In 1134, Mas’ud made significant gains against the Danishmendids (who had backed his rise to power). When the Second Crusade was launched in reaction to the fall of the County of Edessa to Zengi of Mosul, Mas’ud, and his Anatolian Seljuqs played a major role in their defeat. The destruction of the German and French Crusaders was their doing. In the years that followed Mas’ud would oversee a gradual expansion of his domain, with the Sultanate of Rum absorbing both the remnants of the Greater Seljuqs and the Danishmendids. In 1153, the Alaeddin Mosque in Konya was completed and remains Mas’ud’s greatest legacy, as well as the best-preserved example of Seljuq architecture still in existence. The Sultan Mas’ud died in 1156, the first Seljuq sultan to die peacefully.

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The Alaeddin Mosque in modern Konya, Turkey. The Rum dynastic mausoleum, Mas’ud was the first of eight sultans buried here. By Christian Mathis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Mas’ud left behind a growing, prosperous, realm. Mas’ud was succeeded to the throne by his son Kilij Arslan II. Like his grandfather, this Kilij was a full-blown warrior and a fighter, and it was in his reign the Third Crusade was faced. At the start of his reign, Kilij Arslan II was threatened by his brother, who was supported by the Danishmendids. There was also the matter of the Romans. Eventually, Kilij Arslan II decided to focus on the Romans first. In 1159, he attacked Manouel I as he was returning home from a conference with Nur ad-Din, the successor of Zengi. The attack resulted in a war that ended in Roman victory in 1161. Or so it seemed. In reality, Kilij Arslan II was setting the stage for what he hoped to be a great victory over the Romans. In 1175, the Sultanate of Rum destroyed the hated Danishmendids, annexing their territory. By the terms of their treaty, Manouel demanded land he believed Roman by right. But Kilij Arslan II refused, and, as a result, the whole Roman army marched against him. In the resulting battle of Myriokephalon even though the Roman army had avoided being wiped out the psychological impact was enormous.

After this battle no more attempts were made to conquer Anatolia, the tide of time had turned in favor of the Seljuqs. Following the battle Kilij Arslan II took a page from his father’s book and focused on the internal affairs. The famous ‘hans’ or trading centers that marked the beginning of the first great Turkish economic flourishing appeared at this time. In 1180 following the death of his old enemy Manouel Kilij Arslan II launched an offensive against Roman territory, capturing the southern Anatolian coastline. During this conquest, the Seljuqs negotiated an alliance with the rising power of Salah ad-Din, whom we know as Saladin. In 1186, Kilij Arslan II made the most controversial decision of his life. He decided to abdicate his throne to his ten sons, he would nominally remain sultan for the rest of his life, but the day-to-day ruling would be their domain. It was in this political climate that Frederick Barbarossa and his soldiers captured Konya, the capital of the Seljuq realm. Kilij Arslan II died two years later, watching as his sons tore the sultanate apart in their petty squabbles.

The first son to claim the Seljuq throne was Kai Khusrau, who took it in 1192. In 1194, the last remnants of the Great Seljuqs collapsed, bringing the Seljuq period of Persia to an end. But Kai Khusrau had not been on the throne for long before he was sentenced to exile with his family to Constantinople in 1196. He was replaced by Suleiman II, who conquered the Artukid and Saltukid begliks in his reign. In 1204, he died and was succeeded by his three-year-old son Kilij Arslan III. But the infant sultan was replaced by his returning uncle and cousins later that year, after the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade.

Kai Khusrau had inherited a real mess. In 1204, with the aid of his Roman father-in-law, Kai Khusrau was at last able to conquer the Seljuq throne for good. Under this new sultan, the Seljuqs began to recover from the civil war and rebuild their shattered realm. Kai Khusrau even called on his sister Nesibi Hatun, to help out by overseeing a building spree on his behalf. In 1207, Kai Khusrau captured Antalya, an important Mediterranean port. With the taking of Antalya the great economic boom that characterized the reigns of Kai Khusrau and his sons Kai Qavus and Kai Qubad began. He then embarked on a campaign against the Roman successor states in Anatolia and died in battle with the Emperor of Nicaea, Theodoros Laskaris, in 1211.

The next sultan improved on his father’s legacy. Kai Qavus was much like his father in how he ruled the Sultanate of Rum, in that he balanced the economy with military conquests. One of the first actions he took was to imprison his younger brother Kai Qubad. Much as Malik Shah had feared Kilij Arslan, Kai Qavus feared for his throne. In 1214, the Black Sea port city of Sinope was captured by Seljuq armies, which opened new trade opportunities with the Far East. When the city of Antalya was captured by a Crusader invasion Kai Qavus was able to recapture it quickly. Holding these two trade cities put the sultanate right on the middle of the trade routes, which strengthened the coffers of Rum. He also forced the Roman successor state of Trebizond to bow to him. However, that would not have been possible if not for Kai Qavus’ army reforms. He enlarged the Seljuq armies and instilled a new sense of discipline. Kai Qavus was also a builder, and his buildings inspired his brother later. In the last years of his reign, Kai Qavus became a poet, and he encouraged the study of the Persian classics. He died of a disease in 1219.

Kai Qubad was perhaps the greatest of the Sultans of Rum. When Kai Qavus died in 1219, his brother Kai Qubad was released from prison in Ankara, and as his brother had no sons, he was allowed to succeed. Kai Qubad soon proved himself full of such unbridled energy, self-confidence, and ambition that he was unlike any Seljuq ruler since the early days of the sultanate. He was also obsessed with military matters. Even if the Sultanate of Rum was wealthy it was still small, not yet to the size it had been under his grandfather. Starting in 1221 he embarked on a series of campaigns that would when they ended brought all Anatolia save for Diyarbakir and the Christian kingdoms, as well as the Crimea under Seljuq dominion. For fifteen years, the Sultanate of Rum was never defeated on the field of battle.


Statue of Kai Qubad in modern Alanya, Turkey. By user:ozgurmulazimoglu (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

But it was in the domestic arena that Kai Qubad received his greatest glory. No other man in the entire Seljuq dynasty was as great a builder as he. No other man was as great a trader then he also. It is said that Kai Qubad transformed all Anatolia into a market garden during his reign, backed by vast sugar refineries and farms. Nearly all the cities under his command received a makeover: Konya was rebuilt, surpassing all of her old glory. Sivas was transformed into one of the greatest trading centers in the Middle East. The walls of Kayseri were rebuilt. Kai Qubad built more hans in his reign than any other sultan. And every major crossing had a bridge. More palaces were built; two examples (Keykubadiyye and Kubadabad) remain today. It was in this era of unsurpassed glory the first envoys of the Mongols arrived, but what they felt on seeing this splendor we do not know. This glorious reign was ended in blood when Kai Qubad was assassinated in 1237 with all of his sons save one.

The reign of the surviving son would mark the beginning of the end. Following the assassination of his father and brothers Kai Khusrau II ascended to the Seljuq throne. In 1237 when he began his reign he was master of nearly all of Anatolia when he died it was divided. Kai Khusrau II was not suited to rule, he was interested only in wine and poetry. Nevertheless he started his reign off with conquest, bringing Diyarbakir to the fold. With this conquest, all that stood between the Seljuqs and domination was the Christian kingdoms of Lesser Armenia and the Roman successor state of Trebizond. But just as he was about to go to war a massive revolt broke out. In 1239 the Turkmen (that is those people that did not want to settle down into a sedentary lifestyle) rose in revolt under a Sufi mystic (Dervish) named Baba Ishaq. This uprising was massive, and grew and changed purpose. Soon what had started as just the revolt of the discontented turned into a religious revolution, and people from all walks of life joined in. It took three years to put down the uprising, and the damage would be irreparable. All levels of Turkish society had been affected by the rebellion, throwing it into an uproar. Also the army Kai Qavus and Kai Qubad had built up so proudly no longer existed. And finally the Crimea, the sultanate’s first possession outside the Middle East, had been lost in the chaos.

Still Kai Khusrau II was optimistic, but not for long. In 1242, the Mongol general and the representative of the Great Khan in the Middle East, Baiju, attacked the Sultanate of Rum. The Sultanate was well aware of the Mongols; Kai Qubad had even invited them to parley with him at Konya. But no one had taken their threat seriously, even as they continued their conquests undefeated from Mongolia all the way to Persia. Now the great scourge from the east descended on Anatolia like a plague. When Erzurum suddenly fell to Baiju, the Seljuqs finally realized what they faced. A panicking Kai Khusrau II hastily put together an army; later to be joined by Georgian refugees fleeing westwards from the Mongols, and a Roman force from Trebizond. This army met the Mongol army of Baiju at a place known as Kose Dag, in the mountains of eastern Anatolia. In this battle, the Seljuq-Allied army was destroyed by the Mongols, and the broken sultan fled to Antalya and never left. With the destruction of their army, there was nothing to protect the Seljuqs as the Mongols surged forth. Sivas and Kayseri were captured, large swaths of land were burned, and all Anatolia was thrown into chaos. But Baiju did not conquer the whole sultanate. Instead, he merely forced Kai Khusrau II to bend his knee to the Great Khan and pay a hefty tribute. Kai Khusrau II died a broken man, with a broken sultanate, in 1246, possibly strangled by his nobles.

The death of Kai Khusrau II was a great blow. Following the death of Kai Khusrau II there was a crisis in Seljuq territory. The old sultan had never named a successor, and he had three sons: Kai Qavus II, Kilij Arslan IV, and Kai Qubad II. Under the wise guidance of the brilliant Vizier Celaddin Karatay, the remaining lands of the Sultanate of Rum were divided between the three heirs in 1249. When Hulagu Khan, brother of Mongke, the Great Khan, arrived in the area a few years later he reaffirmed the arrangement between the brothers and appointed Baiju to watch Anatolia carefully. But despite this the three co-rulers conspired and schemed between one another for control of the entire sultanate, as well as a solution to the Mongol problem. In 1257, Kai Qubad II was ready to surrender his third of the sultanate to Mongke, preferring to live under Mongol rule. The nobility was shocked by this news and prevented his surrender by assassinating him. With the death of Kai Qubad II, the balance of power between the brothers was broken. The remaining brothers did not have much time to think though as Hulagu demanded their aid in his campaign against Baghdad, which resulted in the destruction of that city a year later (1258). Following this Hulagu intervened in Anatolia and divided the sultanate in two between Kai Qavus II and Kilij Arslan IV.

The division marks the entrance of one of the most prominent figures of later Seljuq history, the Pervane. Technically Pervane is a title (Turkish: Butterfly), but it is one the man is best known. The Pervane was an arch schemer and manipulator, as we will see. In 1261, the Romans regained Constantinople from the Latin usurpers, and Kai Qavus II soon visited the city to seek the aid of Michael Palaiologos against the Mongols. His mother was a Roman princess, so Kai Qavus II felt kinship with the new Emperor. But the Pervane leaked the plan to the Mongols, leading to exile in Crimea where Kai Qavus II died in 1279. Kilij Arslan IV died soon afterward in 1264 (because of the intrigues of the Pervane), leaving behind a six-year-old boy to inherit. This child was set up by the Mongols as the new sole ruler of Anatolia for them, but in reality the Pervane called the shots.

The Sultanate of Rum was unified but would never grow strong. When the six-year-old Kai Khusrau III came to the throne following the death of his father he was the sultan of all that was left of the Seljuq lands. But even then his control spread little outside Konya. The nobility no longer owed their loyalty to the Rum Sultans any longer, ruling on their own. All actual power was held by the Pervane, who after marrying Kai Khusrau’s III mother became his stepfather. The Pervane, through his political power, was able to hold the Sultanate of Rum together and kept the peace in Anatolia, but he was also by nature an ambitious man. As a result, he was unable to pass up any opportunity for more power. In 1276, he entered into a secret deal with Baibars, the mighty Mamluk Sultan of Egypt (the Mamluks displaced the Ayyubids in 1250). When Baibars entered Anatolia, the Pervane saw to it the Seljuqs aided him in defeating the Mongol presence. But for reasons unknown to this day Baibars did not complete his conquest, instead he turned back and died in Syria soon after (1277). Baibars’ death left the Pervane high and dry, and he was executed later that same year for treason by the Mongols, freeing the Seljuqs from his intrigues. The power vacuum set off a civil war that did not end until the final fall of the Seljuqs. When Kai Khusrau III matured, he chose to focus on a building program, rather than concentrate on the problems plaguing the Sultanate of Rum. Nevertheless, the young sultan was given the epithet Fahreddin, the Pride of Islam, by his people following his execution in 1283.

The end of the Rum Seljuqs was near. When Kai Khusrau III died the Sultanate of Rum no longer existed as a practical entity. All of what is now Turkey had been divided among many squabbling begs, provincial lords, who were loyal only to themselves. Few of these lords owed their support to the Seljuq Sultan, whose existence depended on the begs’ good will. Not long after the death of Kai Khusrau III he was succeeded by his nephew Mas’ud II. He tried to in vain to preserve the sultanate. Mas’ud II was removed from office in 1297 and was succeeded by his brother and rival Kai Qubad III, who was assassinated in 1302. Mas’ud returned to the throne the following year and established himself at Kayseri, lasting until 1308 when he was assassinated. With Mas’ud’s death the Sultanate of Rum ended, bringing to close one of the most momentous periods in Turkey’s history.

The Battle of Poyang Lake

In late August 1363 AD the two main contenders for control of China, Zhu Yuanzhang and Chen Youliang, faced off on Poyang (also called Boyang) Lake, the largest freshwater body of water in China. In the end Zhu Yuanzhang would win the battle and go on to found one of China’s greatest dynasties: the Ming.

The circumstances that would lead to Poyang Lake are tied to the fall of the Yuan Dynasty. When Kublai Khan founded his Yuan Dynasty in 1271 many of the Chinese resented it. In fact they never regarded the Yuan as a legitimate dynasty, but as a foreign occupation army. As time would show very few Yuan Emperors were capable and they became more decedent and sinicized over time. In the 1320s a massive famine swept China and 7 to 8 million people died of starvation. The inability of the Yuan to handle the crises was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many secret societies devoted to the destruction of the Yuan popped up all over the land.

In 1325 the first rebellion broke out. The central Yuan government in Dadu (modern Beijing) was paralyzed and unable to act. Further the Yuan Army had denigrated into an ineffectual force. The wealthy landowning class realized the uprising, which was made of peasants, threatened them just as much as the Yuan. So they armed their own private armies and saved the Yuan from collapse. But the next time they would not be so lucky. In 1344 a flood broke the dams along the Huang He. The Yuan called up 170,000 peasants to fix the dams. But instead the peasants rose in revolt in 1352, and from there snowballed out of control. More rebellions broke out all over the country, and this time the landowners could not save the Yuan. By 1355 the dynasty was for all intents and purposes dead, although the Yuan Emperor remained in power until 1368.

Among the various rebel groups, many of which were religious in nature, the most powerful was the Song regime. The Song regime was originally a combined Buddhist-Manichean sect called the White Lotus, and became the Song regime in 1355. The titular leader was Han Lin’er, the Young King of Brilliance, and the son of Han Shantong, the sect’s founding father. But true power lay in the hands of the so called Red Turban (the military arm of the White Lotus) generals and in particular with a former beggar named Zhu Yuanzhang.

Zhu had been a Buddhist monk, but left his monastery to join the Song. Despite being so ugly that he was compared to a pig in looks Zhu was a strong and charismatic leader. People came to him in droves and Zhu rose quickly among the Song. In 1356 Zhu Yuanzhang conquered Yingtian (modern Nanjing) and from there abandoned the last vestiges of his Buddhist past, proclaiming himself the defender of Confucianism and the people. The Confucian scholars in return began to invent for him a claim to The Mandate of Heaven, the principle by which the Chinese considered no one could not rule. Zhu could now effectively make his own claim to power, but Zhu Shen, a scholar, persuaded him to hold off. Saying:

“Build high walls, stock up rations, and don’t be too quick to call yourself a king”

Attacks from former Red Turban leaders Zhang Shicheng and Xu Shouhui would keep Zhu Yuanzhang busy in the south for several years. Zhu’s ultimate aim was to build up his power base by destroying the southern rebels, while supporting Liu Futong’s (the nominal commander-in-chief of the regime) northern adventures. A major upset occurred in 1360 when Xu Shouhui was killed by his general Chen Youliang, who founded the Da Han regime. This would mark the start of a three-year war between Chen and Zhu.

In 1363 Zhang Shicheng dispatched his general Lu Zhen to attack Anfeng, as Han Lin’er was in the city. The city was quickly besieged and reduced to starvation. At this point Han Lin’er sent out calls for aid. At the time Zhu Yuanzhang was at Yingtian. He knew that if Anfeng fell his flank would be exposed, so Zhu left to save his lord. Chen Youliang saw this as a major opportunity for him to regain the lands in Jiangxi he had lost in 1361. So while Zhu battled Lu for Anfeng, Chen led a massive force to attack Hongdu (modern Nanchang) in June 1363.

The attack force’s exact size is unknown, many accounts number it around 600,000, but this is a popular myth, regardless it was a large force. The naval force was the most impressive piece of the attack. The ships Chen Youliang used here were said to be bright red, several zhang (units of ten feet) high, triple decked, with the decks wide enough for a horse to walk on, with armored hulls and sculling oars. This has lead modern scholars to deduce that Chen Youliang was using Lou Chuans (tower ships) in this battle. However big his army and navy Chen would find Hongdu impossible to crack, the city was well defended by its commander, Zhu Wenzheng. Despite fierce fighting and high casualties among the defenders Hongdu held out. In August Zhu Wenzheng was finally able to get word out of the city to Zhu Yuanzhang.

Zhu Yuanzhang had returned to Yingtian by now from saving Han Lin’er. With the majority his forces fighting Zhang Shicheng at Luzhou (modern Hefei) the news that Chen had attacked Hongdu was an unwelcome surprise. Zhu knew he had to act quickly, even with his small force. But Zhu also knew that in the middle of summer the water in the lake went down. Given the size of the Da Han ships this would mean Zhu and his Red Turban forces would have the advantage with their much smaller boats. Zhu Yuanzhang knew this would be the perfect chance to wipe out the Da Han and Chen Youliang with them. He immediately sent letters to Xu Da and Chang Yuchun, his commanders at Luzhou to wrap it up and come home quickly. Zhu realized that he could not wait for Xu and Chang and on August 6th set out from Yingtian with Feng Guosheng, Liao Yongzhong, and Yu Tonghai to the rescue of Hongdu.

On August 25th Red Turban forces reached Hukou. There Zhu Yuanzhang divided his forces; he sent his land army to Jingjiangkou, Nanhuzui, and Wuyangdu to spring a trap for the Da Han forces. Zhu personally led the naval force to Poyang Lake. On August 27th Chen Youliang realized that after 85 days of siege that Hongdu was not going to surrender, at the same time he learned that a relief fleet was sailing on to the lake. Chen knew his heavy ships could not fight well against the Red Turbans’ lighter vessels, plus the water level continued to fall daily. He knew he needed a quick victory. So the Da Han fleet abandoned the siege of Hongdu and sailed out onto Poyang Lake, dropping anchor around Mt. Kanglang on August 30th. Zhu saw this and did the same. Thus began the decisive battle of Poyang Lake.

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Modern satellite image of Lake Poyang. By NASA (NASA Landsat Image) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Red Turban forces under Zhu Yuanzhang were smaller, but had an advantage against the Da Han forces they faced. Numbers for the Song forces at Poyang Lake are usually said to be around 200,000 men.  To exploit the higher mobility of his ships Zhu had his navy divided into eleven squadrons of ships. The lightest vessels were placed out in front and rear, while the heavier vessels were placed in the center. Zhu Yuanzhang mandated before the start of the battle that every ship carry large and small cannon, handguns, rocket arrows, grenades, fire lances, multiple bolt launchers, and crossbows.

The Da Han forces were larger then the Red Turbans, but with their bigger boats they had a disadvantage. The total number of ships that was with Chen Youliang at Poyang Lake is unknown; however among historians it is believed that Chen Youliang outnumbered Zhu three-to-one at Poyang. Knowing this a reasonable estimate for the size of the Da Han navy at Poyang would be 600,000. Chen believed that all he had to do to defeat Zhu would be to stand fast against him. Therefore Chen had his vast navy chained together, not only did this allow his fleet to remain still but the chains would prevent any penetrations into the Da Han battle line.

With both forces ready the battle of Poyang Lake would be joined. That same day after taking up positions Zhu Yuanzhang opened the battle by sending in the three squadrons of Xu Da, Chang Yuchun (both men had since been able to hook-up with the main body), and Liao Yongzhong. The large numbers of missiles, gunpowder, and other weaponry made the battle visible for over fifty miles. The ferocity of the attack almost broke the Da Han line and when Yu Tonghai showed up in support with a fourth squadron of ships twenty Da Han vessels went down in flames. Besides this Xu Da was able to board and take over one of Chen’s prize Lou Chuans. However the Da Han were able to launch a counterattack. The Da Han vessels, using their height superiority, began to rain down flaming arrows on Xu Da’s ship, which was the vanguard ship of Zhu’s forces. Immediately the other Song vessels came to the rescue to try to drive off the Da Han ships. Even Zhu Yuanzhang himself joined in with his squadron. Due to the concentrated efforts of all involved the fire on Xu Da’s ship was put out and the Song ships scattered to avoid being targeted by Da Han trebuchets.

As the Red Turbans attempted to regroup Chen Youliang’s best commander, Zhang Dingbian, spotted Zhu’s command ship and took off after it. In the attempt to escape from his pursuer Zhu’s ship ran aground on a shoal. Zhang seized the moment and poured everything he had at Zhu Yuanzhang’s command vessel. The other ships, noticing their commander under attack, began to pile toward him. The resulting waves caused by so many ships converging on one place knocked Zhu’s ship free from the sandbar. Zhang Dingbian kept on however until the combined efforts of Chang Yuchun, Yu Tonghai, and Liao Yongzhong forced his retreat. Liao would continue to chase Zhang, nearly turning the latter into a living pincushion, until Zhang got back behind his own lines.

The battle would continue until nightfall and in the review would prove to be a disappointment to both sides. Zhu Yuanzhang had believed that his nimbler ships would be able to run rings around the massive Da Han ships and attack them with impunity. However Chen had realized that possibility and maneuvered his ships so when the Red Turbans tried to flank him, the ships would run aground, as Zhu himself learned. In addition Zhu lost many men in the fight, more then anticipated, as well as many good commanders (especially in the fracas surrounding the command ship beaching). For Chen’s part he had not expected Zhu to make a full frontal attack. The loss of twenty ships at the start of the battle was an unwelcome surprise. Not to mention his fury over that Zhang was not able to kill Zhu. At nightfall Xu Da withdrew from the battle back to Yingtian on Zhu’s orders. He feared an attack from Zhang Shicheng in his rear and knew he could depend on Xu Da to keep Yingtian safe.

On the following morning, August 31st, Zhu Yuanzhang ordered a second full frontal assault on the Da Han lines, hoping for a repeat of the previous day’s success and this time around Zhu would be in personal command. But Chen Youliang had anticipated such a move and had the massive Lou Chuans moved to the front of the formation tightly packed. As a result despite three full frontal assaults by Red Turban forces the Da Han were able to keep throwing them back. Then the squadrons on the right wing began to turn and sail away. In a fury Zhu ordered them to return to battle, when they refused Zhu ordered his ships to disengage.

Back at camp Zhu Yuanzhang let out the full weight of his infamous temper, he ordered the executions of the ten commanders who fled the battle as an example to the rest. Zhu seemed prepared to execute many more, but his staff officer Guo Xing intervened. Guo pointed out to his commander that it was not cowardice or lack of effort that was the reason that he was losing the battle. Instead and correctly, Guo pointed out that it was the disparity in the sizes of their vessels to Chen’s.

To correct this he proposed a fire attack. Realizing his mistakes Zhu Yuanzhang took to the plan wholeheartedly and had seven fire ships constructed. These ships were built to look like any regular vessel and had straw dummies dressed in armor and holding weapons to fool the Da Han crews. All that was needed now was a wind to blow the ships toward the enemy. That evening a northeastern wind blew and the fire ships were sent away. Before the Da Han fleet even realized what was happening their fleet had been set ablaze. When night fell Poyang Lake had become a lake of fire. Zhu Yuanzhang seized the initiative and attacked.

By morning half of the Da Han forces had been either burned alive or killed by Zhu’s attack. Among the dead was Chen Youliang’s brothers Youren and Yougui. After this both sides withdrew to their camps for a while. On September 2nd the fighting resumed when Chen Youliang launched a mass attack on Zhu’s flagship. The ferocity became so great that Zhu realized he had to abandon his ship, but could not because of his distinct armor. So he was forced to exchange his armor with one of his generals, which allowed Zhu to escape just as his ship exploded. After pulling back Zhu Yuanzhang realized that Chen was identifying his ship by its white boom. So when the Red Turban forces returned later in the day all the ships had white booms. Noticing the Da Han ships were having difficulty maneuvering Zhu sent his commanders Yu Tonghai, Liao Yongzhong, Zhang Xingzu, and Zhao Yong to a quick strike between the behemoth vessels with some small fast ships. This act of daring raised Red Turban morale significantly. After the commanders returned a general assault was launched that was able to smash the Da Han forces.

The tide had turned. Chen Youliang realized the battle had turned against him and tried to escape via Xieshan at Hukou. But Zhu was already waiting for him. For a while Chen Youliang had begun to disengage his navy, and Zhu Yuanzhang had received word that his ground forces had broken the land siege of Hongdu and had entered the city in triumph. This meant that for all intents and purposes he had won the battle for he had rescued Hongdu, his original goal. But Zhu realized that this battle presented him with the golden opportunity to remove the thorn of Chen Youliang, and Zhu was not going to let this chance slip. So he moved his navy back off the lake and onto the mouths of the Gan and Yangzi rivers. This made it appear he was going home, but also allowed him to block the route of retreat for the Da Han forces as well.

By September 4th Chen Youliang had thrown himself at the Red Turban forces blockading the rivers and made no headway. At this point his Right Golden General, name unknown, proposed abandoning the ships and advancing overland to Hunan to regroup and resupply, then return. The Left Golden General, name also unknown, disagreed; stating that if they went overland the Red Turban cavalry would make mincemeat of them. In the end and despite his generals’ bickering, Chen decided to take the Right General’s advice. This made the Left General surrender to Zhu Yuanzhang in despair. Shortly after the Right General did the same for unknown reasons. Following this Zhu sent many letters to Chen Youliang calling for his surrender. Chen’s reply was to execute all his prisoners. Remarkably Zhu did not retaliate by executing his prisoners, instead he let them go. Following this both commanders did nothing for the rest of the month, for fear of losing their respective fleets. However the remaining Da Han were beginning to starve.

As a month passed Zhu Yuanzhang recognized that Chen would attempt a break out or risk losing his remaining forces to starvation. With this in mind the Red Turban forces moved off the lake entirely and went back up the Yangzi to Hukou. Here the entire force went ashore from the ships. A majority dug in on both banks of the river and built wooden palisades. The rest built fire ships or were sent to occupy Qizhou and Xingguo. On October 4th Chen Youliang realized he had no choice and led a last-ditch attack of Zhu Yuanzhang’s forces at Nanhuzui in an attempt to break through to the safety of Wuchang. However the blockade at Hukou prevented the Da Han forces from even being able to reach Nanhuzui. Chen made a split decision to try a breakout at Jingjiangkou instead. However along the way a force of Red Turban ships ambushed him and amid the fighting an arrow hit Chen Youliang through the eye and into his skull causing instant death.

When the Da Han troops realized their king was dead Chen Rongyu, as ranking commander, surrendered the remaining 50,000 soldiers to the forces of Zhu Yuanzhang. To appease Zhu he planned to give up his former master’s two sons. The older boy, Shan’er, was given for execution, but the younger, Li, had disappeared. In fact Zhang Dingbian, the Da Han star commander, had whisked the boy away to Wuchang in the confusion of surrender. With Chen Rongyu’s surrender of the remaining Da Han forces the long battle of Poyang Lake had come to an end.

In the aftermath of Poyang much happened. With the death of Chen Youliang and the destruction of most of his forces the Da Han regime had received a wound from which it would not recover. Chen Li, the second son of Youliang and successor, surrendered just one year later in March 1364, to the new King of Wu. The previous month Zhu Yuanzhang had judged the time right to break out of the shell of the Song regime and establish his own, which he named Wu. Zhu continued to wage war against his southern rivals for many years, until 1367 when he unified the south. That same year Zhu Yuanzhang finally attacked the Yuan remnants in the north for the first time, sending Xu Da with the task of capturing Dadu. He also sent Liao Yongzhong to attack the Mongols in Guangdong and Guangxi.

In 1368 Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed a new dynasty in Yingtian, the Ming (Brilliance), taking inspiration from the title of his former superior, Han Lin’er. Yingtian’s name was changed to Nanjing, meaning southern capital. Furthermore Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed himself Emperor Ming Taizu (Great Ancestor), with the era name Hongwu (Immensely Martial). It is by his era name that he is best recorded in history. By 1369 the new emperor had chased the last vestige of Mongol rule out of China, marking the beginning of Ming rule over the entire country. The Ming dynasty would go on to rule for 300 years, ending at the hands of the Manchus of Qing in 1644. In conclusion the battle of Poyang Lake was the decisive battle in the wars between the various rebel groups and by wining the battle Zhu Yuanzhang ensured his supremacy, eventually paving the way for the foundation of Ming rule.



The court portrait of Ming Taizu in old age. By Palace Painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.



Turnbull, Stephen (2002). ‘Fighting Ships of the Far East (1): China and Southeast Asia

202 BC – AD 1419.’ Oxford: Osprey Publishing.

Chen, Junyi. “Re: Battle of Poyang Lake.” In China History Forum

[online discussion board]. Cited 20 June 2006.

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