Socotra Island

Socotra Island is the largest island in a archipelago just off the horn of Africa but is a part of the Republic of Yemen. Due to it’s political association with Yemen, it is usually considered to be part of the Middle East, however, geologically and geographically it is part of the African continent.

The three main tectonic events that have influenced the movements of the African, Arabic and Indian shield have been the break-up of the Gondwana super-continent during the Jurassic and the Cretaceous as well as the opening of the rift system around the Arabian peninsula and the in the Gulf of Aden in the Oligocene-Miocene, all of which resulted in the separation of the Socotra platform.

The upshot of this geological activity has resulted on the Archipelago as being the most remote non-volcanic island in the world.

It is also sometimes considered to be one of the most alien places on Earth. Certainly it is one of the most beautiful.

Adenium obesum var socotranum (images credit: Jan Vandorpe)

Dorstenia gigas - sinks roots straight into the bare rock (image credit: Denis Romanov)

Dendrosicyos socotranum - cucumber tree (image credit: Jan Vandorpe)

Dracaena cinnabar - Dragon's Blood Tree (image credit: Jan Vandorpe)

Dracaena cinnabar (image credit: dianadrz)

Some notes on the flora and fauna of Socotra.

There are 850 recorded plant species, of which approximately 230 to 260 (about 30 percent) are endemic.

Plant species found here have evolved morphological and physiological adaptations to cope with the dry climate and fierce monsoonal winds. Adenium socotranum has a special cell sap cycling within the caudex which prevents overheating. The succulents display several morphological adaptations. Plant bodies are globular or columnar, with reduced surface areas that decrease transpiration. Glaceous wax surfaces and microanatomical epidermal emergences reflect radiation. Umbrella-shaped shrubs form dense thickets, with all plants reaching the same height, a structure that protects them from strong winds.

There are only seven terrestrial mammals, most of which are introduced, although a bat Rhinopoma sp. and a shrew Suncus sp. are possibly endemic. Of the 178 known bird species, 6 are endemic.

Among the terrestrial reptiles, 21 of the 24 currently known species are endemic and the three remaining species were most likely introduced.

There are no amphibians, despite adequate water and the arid-adapted species present on the nearby African and Arabian mainlands.

Many of these species, although formerly widespread, are now considered endangered.

The native plant species of Socotra reflect the island’s geological history and demonstrate links to the Horn of Africa, as well as to the more distant Macaronesian islands. Socotra separated from the Arabian mainland in the Tertiary by the same series of dislocations that produced the Gulf of Aden. Before that, its position on the supercontinent Gondwana meant that Socotra was nearest to Madagascar, India and the east coast of the African mainland. Many of the endemic plants found on Socotra were previously widespread. For example, Dendrosicyos socotrana was recorded in Djibouti and is now regarded as extinct on the African mainland.


A bit of the human history of the islands.

In the First Century AD, an anonymous seafarer reports that the island was being inhabited by Arabic, Greek and Indian people, and that it was subject to the King of Hadramaut (Yemen). According to historic sources the population, part of which still spoke Greek, was converted to Christianity in the early centuries AD and about the fourth century AD came under the Abyssinian early-Christian influence (= present day Ethiopia and part of Somalia). Archaeological findings in Hoq Cave, discovered by the SKP team, indicate that this cave was visited between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD by mainly Indian, South Arabia and a few Palmyrian (currently Syria) and Abyssinian seafarers, leaving inscriptions that give proof of their seeing this cave as a sacred place. The discovery of a wooden tablet from a man named “Abgar”, made from non-Socotran wood, illustrates the function of Socotra as an economically important place. Hoq Cave was also considered as a place with a religious importance, visited by seafarers from the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. There are no Christian or Islamic remnants on the cave, an important indication for the later Christian influence on the island.

Religion and witchcraft

Since the Fourth Century AD, Christianity was introduced to the Arabian Peninsula and the early Christian inscriptions of Eriosh probably date back to that area. The inscriptions are clearly linked with Abyssinian (see the inscriptions in Axum) but as yet, there has been no profound research on these and other inscriptions and texts found on Socotra. Around this period, the demand of aloe declined and at the same time the international fame of the island diminished, but not its strategic importance for the navigation in the Indian Ocean between South Arabia and East Africa. It is not clear when Islam was introduced to Socotra, some authors believe that the introduction coincides with the prophet Mohammed in the 7th century AD, but there is no proof of that. Anyway, in the 13th century AD, Socotra was famous for its piracy and witchcraft, where women conjured up monsoon winds and pirates attacked passing ships. The Soqotri were regarded as “great wizards and witches with magical powers”, a reflection of the dangerous water currents around the island and the tricky rocky parts of the shore.

 Mahri and Portuguese

In the early 15th century, the island was conquered by the Mahri Sultan of Qisn and came under the South Arabian Government. A fortress was built and the Arabian influence on the island increased as hundreds of Arabian soldiers were sent there to consolidate the invasion. The island was still under the government of Qisn in 1507, when the Portuguese attacked the fortress in Suq and Socotra (Zocotora according to the Portuguese) became their strategic hibernating place. The fights between Mahri and Portuguese continued until 1511, when the Portuguese finally conquered the island. In 1541-42 the European conquerors re-visited their colony (fig. 6) but later it remained under the Mahri sultans of Qisn. In the 16th and 17th century, there was still a strong Christian presence on the island and the trade in aloe, dragon blood, incense and myrrh with Portugal, England and the Netherlands continued. From the 17th century onwards, the Islamic way of life seemed to have settled on the island for good.

 Under British and Yemeni government

In 1834, Socotra came under British government, under siege of the East Indian Company, and in 1886 it became part of the British Protectorate of Aden. Though the British valued Socotra mostly for its military strategic location, it was during this period that the most important biological expeditions were organized, whose scientific quality and discoveries are as yet unsurpassed.

In 1967 Socotra was annexed to South-Yemen, and it was only in 1990 that Socotra was united with North-Yemen. Due to the continuous tensions in Yemen and the absence of an operational airport and airstrip in Socotra, the island was virtually unknown to the majority of people until 2000. In recent years, considerable effort has been made to promote the island as an eco-tourist attraction as the island evolves from its age-old isolation to a place to be for the eco-tourist, scientists and adventurous travellers.

A little bit of information on the people who live here.

The exact number of inhabitants is unknown, but official numbers give an estimate of some 44.000 people. Most people live on the coasts, especially in the capital Hadiboh, the former capital Qalansiyah and the southern plain Noged. Hadiboh especially, shows an explosive increase of Yemenis in recent years. Along the southern coast and in the towns also lives an African minority, chiefly from Somali and Ethiopian origin.

People make a living from fishing, date plantations, and herding their cattle, mostly goats, but also sheep and some cows. The “real” Soqotri have a semi-nomadic existence on the inland, where they herd their cattle for months on end. During this period many families live in shelters and caves. The new generations have settled more on the coasts and change from a pastoral life to that of fishery. Apart from the small occasional vegetable gardens, agriculture is not practiced. The daily diet is composed of local fish, meat, goat milk and dates and, in addition, imported products as rice and flour. Fresh vegetables and, especially, fruit are rare and too expensive for the average family. The older communities have unwritten regulations for the conservation of the pastures and the gathering of dead wood for the preparation of their food. Problems are discussed at meetings of the local chiefs, called sheiks.

Although Arabic is fairly common, mainly inland and by less-educated people, the unwritten primitive tongue “Soqotri” is spoken. It is a pre-Arabic language connected with the Mahri, a language spoken in the southern Arabian regions Mahri and Dhofar and has almost died out. Recently, a school where English is taught has been created. Younger people are eager to learn this language in the hope of increasing their opportunities in the future, as the tourist development on the island increases. Due to a shortage of elementary necessities such as clean drinking water, health care and education, the majority of the population is still living in poor conditions. The last decade however, the island opened up and now, mainly mainlands Yemeni regulate the commerce in Hadiboh. Arab and other international companies are investing in the island, which is actually developing into a touristic and strategically important spot on earth.

It’s somewhere else to put on your bucket list of places to visit.


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