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History of Socotra

The history of the island can be traced back to its existing presence of the Olgana society during the 101 B.C, which many of Old way stone tools were found by the Russian archaeologist in surrounding areas close by to Hadibo in 2008. Other expeditions also revealed that Socotra has been a maritime centre for trading for many civilisations between the 1st century BC and 6th century AD. These expeditions conducted revealed paintings, ancient scriptures of Arabians, Ethipion, Greek, Palmyrene and Sanskrit which are found in caves and several other locations surrounded the archipelago.

Supported by the reason behind the archipelago as a strategic port for trade, these sources are mostly likely left by visiting sailors and traders indicating the diverse origins of Socotra. Abu Muhammad al- Hasan al – Hamdani, a popular Arab Muslim geographer and historian recorded in his publishing of صفة جزيرة العرب (Geography/Character of Arabic peninsula) depicts the strong presence of Christianity during the 10th century. Early missions conducted for the Middle East and India by Thomas the Apostle one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, during the 1st century was mostly likely the reason of conversion of Socotra’s inhabitants to Christianity. The presence of Christianity throughout centuries was further supported by several other sources.

For instance, Socotra had also its fair share of interesting mentions on the mystics and riches of the archipelago by the infamous Venetian traveller Marco Polo in his publication of The Travels of Marco Polo. Despite the ancient community were reported to be baptised as Nestorians Christians with the presence of an archbishop, additional reports highlights the mystical abilities of the locals, whom were also expert practitioners of magic rituals that is able to turn the tide and control the weather. During the period of Renaissance, there was also significance presence of the Portugese during their seven years of invasion on the island between the years 1504 to 1511. Bearing the idea of setting up a strategic port for routes across the Indian Ocean and to eliminate the then growing Islamic influence, the island was invaded by the Portugese when their fleet commanded by Tristão da Cunha and Afonso de Albuquerque landed and in a vigorous battle with the Suqotrans. The Portugese eventually seized the then capital of Suq and its port.

Though successfully claiming the island, the short stint of the Portugese ruling were most likely caused by the infertility of the land and extreme weather conditions that has been considered the decisive factor for the Portugese to pave way for abandonment of the island. Several traces of the Portugese ruling can however still be seen till today such as Forte de São Miguel de Socotorá, an old fort by Tomás Fernandes that lies on the rocky outcrop outside Suq town and also several rubbles and ruins of old churches built during the invasion. The departure of the Portugese eventually was passed on to the control of the Mahra Sultanate of Ghayda and Socotra that conquered both the historal region of Mahra (now known as eastern Yemen) and the island of Socotra. There were however also British garrison on the island with plans by the East India Company to establish docking stations for ships bound for India but were dismissed over the same reason of poor climate conditions. For almost three centuries, the Mahri Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra ruled over the island until 1886 which the sultanate eventually became a British protectorate.

As a result of the abolishment of the sultanate a century later on 16 October 1967, the supposed freedom was granted by to South Yemen which Socotra became the People’s Republic of South Yemen. However, the island was not fully liberated from the hands of imperias as the following two years foresaw influence of the communism across South Yemen with strong ties to the USSR. Socotra then became part of the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen. In 1970’s, its location close to oil deposits and tanker routes has made the island barred from public visits for almost three decades until the Yemeni unification in 1990 where South Yemen was merged with North Yemen that formed the current Republic of Yemen in the 1990. The opening of Socotra to the public eventually became a visiting paradise for ecological researches, adventurous tourists with the Socotra Airport in 1999 making it possible for further revisits.

Geography and Demographics of Socotra

A part of the Republic of Yemen governmed by its own governorate of Socotra, it is the largest island of the country’s territory situated 240 kilometers to the east of the Horn of Africa and 380 kilometers to the south of the Arabian Peninsula. Comprising of four islands ( alongsiden three other smaller islands namely Abd al Kuri, Samhah and Darsa) , the total combined area of the archipelago is approximately 3,796 km2 (1,466 sq mil) with the main island of Socotra measuring close to at least 125 kilometres (78mi) in length and 45 kilometres (28mi) in width. With at least 95% of landmass, the main island is commonly referred as the most isolated landforms on earth that features three unique geographical terrains.

An island that reveals wonders seen nowhere else, Socotra’s terrain is made up of hot, dry narrow lowlands and coastal plains, limestone plateau embedded with karstic caves and the mist- shrouded Hajhir mountain ranges which the peak rises up to 1,503 metres (4,931 ft). Due to its long geological isolation and size of the island combined with extreme climate conditions has lead Socotra to be referred by biologists as the jewel of unique biodiversity within the Arabian Sea. It is also referred to as the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean” as the island is enriched with its wide range of flora and fauna combining the richness of elements of Africa, Asia and Europe that still leaves current biologists puzzled.

Consisting an approximate amount of more than 1,000 endemic species of both animals and plants such as the infamous Dracaena cinnabari (Dragon’s Blood Tree), the Dendrosicyos socotrana (Cucumber Tree), the Cisticola heasitatus (Socotra Cisticola), the Socotra pseudocardisoma (Endemic Crab), and several spectacular species of insects and reptiles found only in Socotra, has led to the archipelago in earning its position as one of the Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008. With an estimation of at least 45,000 of population, the people of Socotra resides mainly in two districts namely Hadibu and Qulansiyah wa ‘Abd-al-Kūrī located north of the island. Tracing back the origins of the locals, most inhabitants are indigenous Soqotri people from the southern Arabian descent of the Al-Mahrah tribe of the Al Mahrah Governorate. Speaking an Afro-Asiatic dialect related to Modern South Arabian language, the Soqotri language is spoken throughout the island. Arabic is also spoken in a dialectal form on the island. Aside from that, a significant small number of Somalian, Indian and African origin communities can also be found in the archipelago.

Etymology of Socotra

Though anthropologist have been tracing its origins for a period of time, the meaning behind Socotra is loosely derived from its Sanskrit origin of dvīpa (द्वीप) for ‘island’ and sukhadhara (सुखाधार) for “paradise” or “providing bliss”. On a second note, its Arabic origin can also be referred to as suq which means market and qotra for dripping of Frankincense (aromatic resin used in incense and perfurmes).