Squeezed between the inhospitable Karakum desert and the rugged Afghan frontier, the fertile plains of eastern Turkmenistan have long been an island of prosperity in Central Asia, heavily dependent on one of the greatest Asia rivers - The Amu Darya River.
The rise of civilisations began in the Bronze Age, reaching their climax with the wondrous city of Merv. The invading Mongols put a heavy toll on the centuries of accumulated wealth but even today the region continues to outpace the rest of Turkmenistan, thanks mainly to a thriving cotton business.
The Amu Darya River, known as the Oxus to the ancient Greeks and the Jeihun in medieval times, flows 2,400km from its headwaters in the Pamir Mountains, through Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, before reaching the Aral Sea. It has always been a vital bestower of life to Central Asia, and today supplies more than 90% of the irrigation water in Turkmenistan; much of this through the Kara Kum Canal, which begins its long journey westward from the southern part of Lebap Region. The Amu Darya is an impressive sight, broad and muddy, its volumes swollen following the winter rains, and again in summer, when it carries the snowmelt from the Pamirs.
The name Lebap, 'riverbank', was chosen in 1992 to replace the earlier designation of Charjou Region for Turkmenistan's easternmost region, a broad strip of land running from southeast to northwest along the border with Uzbekistan, through which the Amu Darya snakes. It is a region with a mixed population of ethnic Uzbeks and Turkmens of the Ersari tribe, some of the former still sporting traditional square black skullcaps, with white embroidery, and long brightly coloured gowns.
The Murgab River flows northwards into Turkmenistan from the mountains of Afghanistan, its waters fanning out into a great alluvial delta some 300km east of Ashgabat before expiring into the unforgiving sands of the Kara Kum Desert. This delta, the Merv Oasis, has been a centre of human settlement since Bronze Age times, and for 2,500 years was dominated by the city of Merv, which was to become one of the most important cities of the Islamic world, and the eastern capital of the Seljuk Empire.
Given the low annual rainfall of the region, the exploitation of the alluvial soils of the oasis has been a story about irrigation. Dams have been used to harness the waters of the Murgab since the Iron Age. The control of these dams became important military objectives for those seeking to secure the oasis. In 1785, the destruction of the main dam by the forces of the Emir of Bukhara, in their attempt to wrest Merv from Persian control, provoked the economic decline of the area. In 1890, Colonel Sir Colin Scott-Moncrieff of the Royal Engineers, who had spent his career working on irrigation systems in India and Egypt, was asked to advise the Russian government on the irrigation of the newly annexed region of Merv. The Russians were evidently pleased with his work, for Tsar Alexander III presented Sir Colin with a magnificent silver punch bowl, which is now the most valuable item in the Royal Engineers' Mess at Chatham. The construction of the Kara Kum Canal across the region in the late 1950s brought the waters of the Amu Darya to the soils of the Merv Oasis. Coupled with irrigation waters derived from the Murgab, these have made Mary Region an important centre for cotton and wheat production in Turkmenistan.
The archaeological park of Ancient Merv is the single major attraction of Mary Region, and arguably of Turkmenistan as a whole, but there is much else to see here, including the remarkable Bronze Age settlement of Gonur, on the northern edge of the oasis, and the cave settlement of Ekedeshik, close to the Afghan border. The modern regional capital, Mary, serves as the obvious base from which to visit these sites, as well as possessing a worthwhile museum of its own.
The region is at its best in autumn when harvest festivals add an element of colourful ambience to otherwise dreary Soviet-built cities.
Many tourists, hurrying to Bukhara, see nothing more of this region than the main road from Mary to the Uzbek border at Farap, perhaps with an unmemorable overnight stop in Turkmenabat on the way. But there are some worthwhile tourist destinations here. For visitors keen on history, eastern Turkmenistan offers some of the best sights in the country, including Merv, Gonur and the cave city at Ekedeshik. This region is also home to the Kugitang Nature Reserve, Turkmenistan’s finest national park, in the far southeast, which offers dinosaur footprints, a vast network of caves, and Turkmenistan's highest peak. But the region has some fine historical monuments too, including the Dayahattin Caravansaray, which offers a strong feel of life along the Silk Road, and the impressive restored mausoleum of Astana-Baba.