Socotra, also called Soqotra, and in Arabic—– Suqutra, is a small archipelago of 4 islands, in the Indian Ocean. The largest island ———– Socotra —— is about 95% of the landmass of the archipelago. It lies 240km east of the “Horn of Africa”, and 380km south of the Arabian Peninsula.
Socotra is a part of Yemen. It had long been a part of the” Aden Governorate”. In 2004, it became attached to the “Hadhramaut Governorate”, which is much closer to the island than Aden. In 2013, the archipelago became its own Governorate.
The name “Soqotra” is not Greek in origin, but it comes from Sanskrit —– “Dvipa” (island) “Sukhadhara” (supporting or providing bliss). Another probable origin of the name is the Arabic “Suq” meaning market” and “Qotra” meaning “dripping frankincense”.
There was, initially, an “Oldowan” culture in Socotra. Oldowan stone tools were found in the area around Hadibo by V. A. Zhukov, a member of the Russian Complex Expedition in 2008. Prior to this, in 2001, a group of Belgians of the Socotra Karst Project made a spectacular discovery. Deep inside a huge cave, on the island of Socotra, they came across a large number of inscriptions, drawings and archaeological objects, that further investigation showed, 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 “Brahmi” script, but there are also inscriptions in South-Arabian, Ethiopian, Greek, Palmyrene and Bactrian scripts. This corpus of nearly 250 texts and drawings thus constitutes one of the main sources for the investigation of the Indian Ocean Trade Networks in the 1st centuries of our era.
A local tradition holds that the inhabitants were converted to Christianity by Saint Thomas, the Apostle in AD 52. In the 10th century, the Arab geographer Abu Muhammad al-Hassan 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 baptized Christians and have an “Archbishop”, who,” it is further explained, ” has nothing to do with the Pope in Rome, but is subject to and “Archbishop” who lives in Baghdad”.
In 1507, a Portuguese fleet landed at Socotra. Their objective was to set a base in a strategic place on the route to India. 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 of the moored Portuguese ships, and so they abandoned the island in 1511 In 1834, the UK stationed a garrison on the island and they wanted to make it a “coaling station”, but the climate was considered unsuitable and so the British left in 1839. On 30 November, 1967, Socotra became a part of South Yemen, and since the Yemini Unification in 1990, it has been part of the Republic of Yemen.
The island is very “isolated” and one-third of its plant life is found nowhere else on the planet. It has been described as “the most alien-looking place on Earth”. Socotra is one of the most isolated landforms on Earth of “continental” origin (i.e. not of “volcanic” origin)The archipelago was once apart 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. Socotra is considered the “Jewel of Biodiversity” in the Arabian Sea. A survey carried out in the 1990s by United Nation’s biologists, found 700 endemic species, “found nowhere else on Earth”. The entire flora of the Socotra Archipelago has been assessed for the IUCN Red List with 3 critically “endangered plant species recognised in 2004.
One of the most striking of Socotra’s plants is the DRAGON’S BLOOD TREE, which is a strange-looking, umbrella-shaped tree. It’s “red sap” was thought to be “dragon’s blood”, sought after as a dye and today used as varnish and paint. There are various endemic Aloes (used medicinally and for cosmetics), giant succulent tree —–DORSTENIA GIGAS, cucumber tree and rare Socotran Pomegranate.
There are several endemic species of birds : the Socotra starling, the Socotra sunbird, Socotra bunting, the Socotra cisticola and Socotra warbler. There are also reptiles, endemic to Socotra ——— legless lizards and Socotra species of chameleons. Bats are the only mammals native to Socotra.
The island was recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a World Natural Heritage Site in July 2008. In July 1999, a new airport opened Socotra to the outside world all the year round.