Socotra (Arabic: سُقُطْرَى Suquṭra), also spelled Soqotra, is an archipelago of four islands located in the Arabian Sea, the largest island of which is also known as Socotra. The territory is part of Yemen, and had long been a subdivision of the Aden Governorate. In 2004, it became attached to the Hadhramaut Governorate, which is much closer to the island than Aden (although the nearest governorate was the Al Mahrah Governorate). In 2013, the archipelago became its own governorate, the Socotra Governorate.
|Native name: سُقُطْرَى
Landsat view over Socotra
|Major islands||Socotra, Abd al Kuri, Samhah, Darsah|
|Area||3,796 km2 (1,466 sq mi)|
|Length||132 km (82 mi)|
|Width||50 km (31 mi)|
|Highest elevation||1,503 m (4,931 ft)|
|Highest point||Mashanig, Hajhir Mountains|
Qulansiyah wa 'Abd-al-Kūrī (west)
|Capital and largest city||Hadibu (pop. 8,545)|
|Pop. density||11.3 /km2 (29.3 /sq mi)|
|Ethnic groups||predominantly Soqotris; minority South Arabians, Somalis, Indians, and Bantu|
|Official name||Socotra Archipelago|
|Designated||2008 (32nd session)|
The island of Socotra constitutes around 95% of the landmass of the Socotra archipelago. It lies some 240 kilometres (150 mi) east of the Horn of Africa and 380 kilometres (240 mi) south of the Arabian Peninsula. The island is very isolated, home to a high number of endemic species; up to a third of its plant life is endemic. It has been described as "the most alien-looking place on Earth." The island measures 132 kilometres (82 mi) in length and 49.7 kilometres (30.9 mi) in width.
In the notes to his translation of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, G.W.B. Huntingford remarks that the name Suqotra is not Greek in origin, but from the Sanskrit dvīpa ("island") sukhadhara ("supporting, or providing bliss").
Socotra appears as Dioskouridou ("of the Dioscuri") in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a 1st-century AD Greek navigation aid. A recent discovery of texts in several languages, including a wooden tablet in Palmyrene dated to the 3rd century AD, indicate the diverse origins of those who used Socotra as a trading base in antiquity.
In 2001 a group of Belgian speleologists of the Socotra Karst Project investigated a cave on the island Socotra. There, they came across a large number of inscriptions, drawings and archaeological objects. Further investigation showed that these had been left by sailors who visited the island between the 1st century BC and the 6th century AD. Most of the texts are written in the Indian Brāhmī script, but there are also inscriptions in South Arabian, Ethiopic, Greek, Palmyrene and Bactrian scripts and languages. This corpus of nearly 250 texts and drawings thus constitutes one of the main sources for the investigation of Indian Ocean trade networks in that time period.
A local tradition holds that the inhabitants were converted to Christianity by Thomas the Apostle in AD 52. In the 10th century, the Arab geographer Abu Muhammad al-Hasan al-Hamdani stated that in his time most of the inhabitants were Christians. Socotra is also mentioned in The Travels of Marco Polo; Marco Polo did not pass anywhere near the island but recorded a report that "the inhabitants are baptised Christians and have an 'archbishop'" who, it is further explained, "has nothing to do with the Pope in Rome, but is subject to an archbishop who lives at Baghdad." They were Nestorians but also practised ancient magic rituals despite the warnings of their archbishop.
In 1507, a Portuguese fleet commanded by Tristão da Cunha with Afonso de Albuquerque landed at the then capital of Suq and captured the port after a stiff battle. Their objective was to set a base in a strategic place on the route to India, and to liberate the presumed friendly Christians from Islamic rule. Tomás Fernandes started to build a fortress at Suq, the Forte de São Miguel de Socotorá. However, the infertility of the land led to famine and sickness in the garrison. Moreover, the lack of a proper harbour for wintering led to the loss of many moored Portuguese ships, the most important of which was the Santo António galleon under the command of captain Manuel Pais da Veiga. Thus the Portuguese abandoned the island four years later, as it was not advantageous as a base.
The islands passed under the control of the Mahra sultans in 1511, and its inhabitants were Islamized during their rule. However, in 1737, Captain de la Garde-Jazier, commander of a French naval expedition heading for Mocha, was surprised to find Christian tribes living in the interior of Socotra during a five-week stopover on the island. He reported in a letter home that the tribesmen, "due to lack of missionaries, had only retained a faint knowledge of Christianity."
In 1834, the East India Company, in the expectation that the Mahra sultan of Qishn and Socotra, who resided at Qishn on the mainland, would accept an offer to sell the island, stationed a garrison on Socotra. However, faced with the unexpected firm refusal of the sultan to sell, as well as the lack of good anchorages for a coaling station to be used by the new steamship line being put into service on the Suez-Bombay route, the British left in 1835. After the capture of Aden in 1839, the British lost all interest in acquiring Socotra.
In January 1876, in exchange for a payment of 3000 thalers and a yearly subsidy, the sultan pledged "himself, his heirs and successors, never to cede, to sell, to mortgage, or otherwise give for occupation, save to the British Government, the Island of Socotra or any of its dependencies." Additionally, he pledged to give assistance to any European vessel that wrecked on the island and protect the crew, the passengers and the cargo, in exchange for a suitable reward. In April 1886, the British government, concerned about reports that the German navy had been visiting various ports in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean for the purpose of securing a naval base, decided to conclude a protectorate treaty with the sultan in which he promised this time to "refrain from entering into any correspondence, agreement, or treaty with any foreign nation or power, except with the knowledge and sanction of the British Government", and give immediate notice to the British Resident at Aden of any attempt by another power to interfere with Socotra and its dependencies. Apart from those obligations, this preemptive protectorate treaty, designed above all to seal off Socotra from competing colonial powers, left the sultan in control of the island. In 1897, the P&O ship Aden sank after being wrecked on a reef near Socotra, with the loss of 78 lives. As some of the cargo had been plundered by islanders, the sultan was reminded of his obligations under the agreement of 1876.
In October 1967, in the wake of the departure of the British from Aden and southern Arabia, the Mahra Sultanate as well as the other states of the former Aden Protectorate were abolished. On 30 November of the same year, Socotra became part of South Yemen. Since Yemeni unification in 1990, it has been part of the Republic of Yemen. Today, Socotra is the only region of Yemen not to be involved in the disastrous civil war, with no military confrontations or attacks having taken place on the island.
Geography and climateEdit
Socotra is one of the most isolated landforms on Earth of continental origin (i.e. not of volcanic origin). The archipelago was once part of the supercontinent of Gondwana and detached during the Miocene epoch, in the same set of rifting events that opened the Gulf of Aden to its northwest.
The archipelago consists of the main island of Socotra (3,665 km2 (1,415 sq mi)), the three smaller islands of Abd al Kuri, Samhah and Darsa, as well as small rock outcrops like Ka'l Fir'awn and Sābūnīyah that are uninhabitable by humans but important for seabirds.
The main island has three geographical terrains: the narrow coastal plains, a limestone plateau permeated with karstic caves, and the Haghier Mountains. The mountains rise to 1,503 metres (4,931 ft). The island is about 125 kilometres (78 mi) long and 45 kilometres (28 mi) north to south.
The climate of Socotra is classified in the Köppen climate classification as BWh and BSh, meaning a tropical desert climate and semi-desert climate with a mean annual temperature over 25 °C or 77 °F. Yearly rainfall is light, but is fairly spread throughout the year. Due to orographic lift provided by the interior mountains, especially during the northeast monsoon from October to December, the highest inland areas can average as much as 800 millimetres (31.50 in) per year and receive over 250 millimetres (9.84 in) per month in November or December. The southwest monsoon season from July to September brings strong winds and high seas. For many centuries, the sailors of Gujarat called the maritime route near Socotra as “Sikotro Sinh”, meaning the lion of Socotra, that constantly roars—referring to the high seas near Socotra.
|Climate data for Socotra|
|Average high °C (°F)||27.2
|Daily mean °C (°F)||22.0
|Average low °C (°F)||16.8
|Average rainfall mm (inches)||23
|Average rainy days (≥ 0.0 mm)||2.0||2.0||2.1||3.4||4.1||6.0||9.7||9.3||4.9||3.2||3.0||3.0||52.7|
|Average relative humidity (%)||20||21||24||27||29||29||28||27||27||25||22||21||25|
|Source: Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia|
Flora and faunaEdit
Socotra is considered the jewel of biodiversity in the Arabian Sea. In the 1990s, a team of United Nations biologists conducted a survey of the archipelago’s flora and fauna. They counted nearly 700 endemic species, found nowhere else on earth; only New Zealand, Hawaii, New Caledonia, and the Galápagos Islands have more impressive numbers.
The long geological isolation of the Socotra archipelago and its fierce heat and drought have combined to create a unique and spectacular endemic flora. Botanical field surveys led by the Centre for Middle Eastern Plants, part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, indicate that 307 out of the 825 (37%) plant species on Socotra are endemic, i.e., they are found nowhere else on Earth. The entire flora of the Socotra Archipelago has been assessed for the IUCN Red List, with 3 Critically Endangered and 27 Endangered plant species recognised in 2004.
One of the most striking of Socotra's plants is the dragon's blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), which is a strange-looking, umbrella-shaped tree. Its red sap was thought to be the dragon's blood of the ancients, sought after as a dye, and today used as paint and varnish. Also important in ancient times were Socotra's various endemic aloes, used medicinally, and for cosmetics. Other endemic plants include the giant succulent tree Dorstenia gigas, the cucumber tree Dendrosicyos socotranus, the rare Socotran pomegranate (Punica protopunica), Aloe perryi, and Boswellia socotrana.
The island group also has a rich fauna, including several endemic species of birds, such as the Socotra starling (Onychognathus frater), the Socotra sunbird (Nectarinia balfouri), Socotra bunting (Emberiza socotrana), Socotra cisticola (Cisticola haesitatus), Socotra sparrow (Passer insularis), Socotra golden-winged grosbeak (Rhynchostruthus socotranus), and a species in a monotypic genus, the Socotra warbler (Incana incana). Many of the bird species are endangered by predation by non-native feral cats. With only one endemic mammal, 6 endemic bird species and no amphibians, reptiles constitute the most relevant Socotran vertebrate fauna with 31 species. If one excludes the two recently introduced species, Hemidactylus robustus and Hemidactylus flaviviridis, all native species are endemic. There is a very high level of endemism at both species (29 of 31, 94%) and genus levels (5 of 12, 42%). At the species level, endemicity may be even higher, as phylogenetic studies have uncovered substantial hidden diversity.  The reptiles species include skinks, legless lizards, and one species of chameleon, Chamaeleo monachus. There are many endemic invertebrates, including several spiders (such as the tarantula Monocentropus balfouri) and three species of freshwater crabs (one Socotra and two Socotrapotamon).
As with many isolated island systems, bats are the only mammals native to Socotra. In contrast, the coral reefs of Socotra are diverse, with many endemic species. Socotra is also one of the homes of the butterfly Bicyclus anynana.
Over the two thousand years of human settlement on the islands the environment has slowly but continuously changed, and according to Jonathan Kingdon, "the animals and plants that remain represent a degraded fraction of what once existed." The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea says the island had crocodiles and large lizards, and the present reptilian fauna appears to be greatly reduced. Until a few centuries ago, there were rivers and wetlands on the island, greater stocks of the endemic trees, and abundant pasture. The Portuguese recorded the presence of water buffaloes in the early 17th century. Now there are only sand gullies, and many native plants only survive where there is greater moisture or protection from livestock. The remaining Socotra fauna is greatly threatened by goats and other introduced species.
The island was recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a world natural heritage site in July 2008. The European Union has supported such a move, calling on both UNESCO and International Organisation of Protecting Environment to classify the island archipelago among the environmental heritages.
Most of the inhabitants are indigenous Soqotri people from Al-Mahrah tribe, who are of Southern Arabian descent from Al Mahrah Governorate, and are said to be especially closely related with the Qara and Mahra groups of Southern Arabia. There are also a small number of residents of Somali and Indian origin. In addition, the island is inhabited by various Black African peoples, who are believed to be descendants of runaway slaves.
The Semitic language Soqotri, spoken originally only in Socotra by Al-Mahrah people, is related to such other Modern South Arabian languages on the Arabian mainland as Mehri, Harsusi, Bathari, Shehri, and Hobyot. Soqotri is also spoken by Al-Mahrah minority populations in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and Kuwait.
The majority of male residents on Socotra are reported to be in the J* subclade of Y-DNA haplogroup J. Several of the female lineages on the island, notably those in mtDNA haplogroup N, are found nowhere else on Earth.
Almost all inhabitants of Socotra, numbering nearly 50,000, live on the homonymous main island of the archipelago. The principal city, Hadibu (with a population of 8,545 at the census of 2004); the second largest town, Qalansiyah (population 3,862); and Qād̨ub (population 929) are all located on the north coast of the island of Socotra. Only about 450 people live on 'Abd-al-Kūrī and 100 on Samha; the island of Darsa and the islets of the archipelago are uninhabited.
- the district of Hadibu (حديبو), with a population of 32,285 and a district seat at Hadibu, consists of the eastern two-thirds of the main island of Socotra;
- the district of Qulansiyah wa 'Abd-al-Kūrī (قلنسيه وعبد الكوري), with a population of 10,557 and a district seat at Qulansiyah, consists of the minor islands (the island of 'Abd-al-Kūrī chief among them) and the western third of the main island.
The islanders followed indigenous religions until 52 AD, when, according to local beliefs, Thomas the Apostle was shipwrecked there on his way to evangelize India. He then supposedly constructed a church out of his ship's wreckage and baptized many Socotrans. After this, Christianity became the main religion of the island. They followed Nestorius, the Catholic Archbishop of Constantinople, who was later excommunicated for heresies. The Socotrans remained loyal to his teachings and joined the Assyrian church. During the 10th century, Arab geographer Abu Muhammad al-Hasan al-Hamdani recorded during his visits that most of the islanders were Christian. Explorer Marco Polo wrote in his travelogue:
I give you my word that the people of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world. It is true that the archbishop does not approve of these enchantments and rebukes them for the practice. But this has no effect, because they say that their forefathers did these things of old.
Christianity in Socotra went into decline when the Mahra sultanate took power in the 16th century and became mostly Muslim by the time the Portuguese arrived later that century. An 1884 edition of Nature, a science journal, writes that the disappearance of Christian churches and monuments can be accounted for by a Wahhabi excursion to the island in 1800. Today the only remnants of Christianity are some cross engravings from the 1st century AD, a few Christian tombs, and some church ruins.
Monsoons long made the archipelago inaccessible from June to September each year. However, in July 1999, a new airport opened Socotra to the outside world all year round. There is regular service to and from Aden and Sana'a. All scheduled commercial flights make a technical stop at Riyan-Mukalla Airport. Socotra Airport is located about 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) west of the main city, Hadibu, and close to the third largest town in the archipelago, Qād̨ub. Diesel generators make electricity widely available in Socotra. A paved road runs along the north shore from Qulansiyah to Hadibu and then to the DiHamri area; and another paved road, from the northern coast to the southern through the Dixsam Plateau.
The former capital is located to the east of Hadibu. A small Yemeni Army barracks lies at the western end of Hadibu, and the former President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has a residence there.
At the end of the 1990s, a United Nations Development Program was launched with the aim of providing a close survey of the island of Socotra. The project called Socotra Governance and Biodiversity Project have listed following goals from 2009:
- Local governance support
- Development and implementation of mainstreaming tools
- Strengthening nongovernmental organizations' advocacy
- Direction of biodiversity conservation benefits to the local people
- Support to the fisheries sector and training of professionals
Transport is a delicate matter on Socotra because, as much as modern transportation has its advantages, road construction has been considered detrimental to the island and its ecosystem. The most harm is being done by chemical pollution from road construction and road provoked habitat fragmentation.
The only port on Socotra is 5 kilometres (3.1 miles) east of Hadibu. Ships connect the port with the Yemeni coastal city of Mukalla. According to information from the ports, the journey takes 2–3 days and the service is used mostly for cargo.
Yemenia and Felix Airways flew from Socotra Airport to Sana'a and Aden via Riyan Airport. As of March 2015, due to ongoing civil war involving Saudi Arabia's Air Force all flights to and from Socotra have been canceled.
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- Zhukov, Valery A. (2014). The Results of Research of the Stone Age Sites in the Island of Socotra (Yemen) in 2008-2012 (in Russian). Moscow: Triada. ISBN 978-5-89282-591-7.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Socotra.|
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Socotra.|
- Socotra Governance and Biodiversity Project, UNDP Yemen, 2008–2013
- LA Times photogallery
- Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh: Soqotra's Misty Future (see page 5 for information on dragons' blood)
- Global organisation of Friends for Soqotra in any aspect based in Edinburgh, Scotland
- Audio interview with Socotra resident
- Carter, Mike. The land that time forgot The Observer. Sunday April 16, 2006.
- A Historical Genealogy of Socotra as an Object of Mythical Speculation, Scientific Research & Development Experiment
- SCF Organisation
- An article in T Style Magazine – NYTimes
- "Suḳuṭra" in the Encyclopaedia of Islam
- Socotra Information Project
- Scishow Socotra Youtube
- "15 Pictures Of 'The Most Alien-Looking Place On Earth'" - photo essay
- Documentary film of the Island of Socotra. Socotra: The Hidden Land