For the disputed submerged rock in the East China Sea, see Socotra Rock
The island of Socotra constitutes around 95% of the landmass of the Socotra Archipelago. It lies 380 kilometres (240 mi) south of the Arabian Peninsula
While politically a part of Yemen (part of the Arabian Peninsula
and thus Western Asia
), Socotra and the rest of its archipelago geographically are part of Africa
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 2008 Socotra was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
There was initially an Oldowan
lithic 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.
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 of 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
; there are also inscriptions in South Arabian
scripts and languages. This corpus of nearly 250 texts and drawings constitutes one of the main sources for the investigation of Indian Ocean trade
networks in that time period.
A local tradition, based on the 3rd-century apocryphal Acts of Thomas
, holds that the inhabitants were converted to Christianity
by Thomas the Apostle
in AD 52. In 880, an Ethiopian
expeditionary force conquered the island and an Oriental Orthodox
bishop was consecrated. The Ethiopians were later dislodged by a large armada sent by Imam Al-Salt bin Malik
In the 10th century, the Arab geographer Abu Muhammad al-Hasan al-Hamdani
stated that, in his time, most of the inhabitants were Christian. 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 Oriental Orthodox but also practised ancient magic rituals despite the warnings of their archbishop.
Photo of local men from Socotra taken by Charles K. Moser, 1918
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. The architect Tomás Fernandes
started to build a fortress at Suq, the Forte de São Miguel de Socotorá
. The infertility of the land led to famine and sickness in the garrison, however. 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.
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 converted to Islam
during their rule.
In 1737, however, 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. Faced with the unexpected firm refusal of the sultan to sell, however, 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
by the British in 1839, they lost all interest in acquiring Socotra.
In January 1876, in exchange for a payment of 3,000 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 assist 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 to secure 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 against competition from other colonial powers, left the sultan in control of the island. In 1897, the P&O
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
. The attitude of the South Yemeni government to the Soviet Union enabled the Soviet Navy to use the archipelago as a supply and supporting base for its operations in the Indian Ocean between 1971 and 1985.
In 2015, cyclone Chapala
and cyclone Megh
struck Socotra, causing severe damage to the island's infrastructure, homes, roads, and power. Due to the collective impacts of Chapala and Megh, various Gulf Cooperation Council
states sent 43 planes with supplies to the island by 19 November.
The United Arab Emirates sent a ship and a plane, carrying 500 tons[ambiguous]
of food, 10 tons[ambiguous]
of blankets and tents, and 1,200 barrels of food.
In 2017, some Yemeni political factions accused the United Arab Emirates
of looting, claiming that Emirati forces had ravaged the flora of the island.
On April 30, 2018, the United Arab Emirates
, as part of the ongoing Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, landed troops on the island and took control
of Socotra Airport
On May 14, 2018, Saudi troops were also deployed on the island and a deal was brokered between the United Arab Emirates and Yemen for a joint military training exercise and the return of administrative control of Socotra airport and seaport under Yemeni control.
In May 2019, the Yemeni government accused the United Arab Emirates of landing around 100 separatist troops in Socotra, which the UAE denied, deepening a rift between the two nominal allies in Yemen's civil war.
In February 2020, a regiment of the Yemeni Army stationed in Socotra rebelled and pledged allegiance to the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council
in Socotra, renouncing the UN-backed government of Hadi
The Southern Transitional Council seized control of the island in June 2020.
On 2 March 2021, the UAE deployed military officials to the island. Around the same time, the Emirates also sent a ship carrying ammunition to the militias in Socotra. Confirming the information, an adviser to Yemeni Information Minister Muammar Al-Iryani, Mukhtar Al-Rahbi said it was a set up of military escalation in the region.
Geography and climate
Halah Cave (Arabic
: كهف حالة
) in the east of the island is several hundred metres deep, with total darkness. Note the size of the stalagmites
compared to that of the 1.7 metres (5.6 ft) man with the torch.
The archipelago consists of the main island of Socotra (3,665 km2
or 1,415 sq mi), the three smaller islands of Abd al Kuri
, as well as small rock outcrops like Ka'l Fir'awn and Sābūnīyah that are uninhabitable by humans but important for seabirds
The climate of Socotra is classified in the Köppen climate classification
, meaning a tropical
, desert climate
bordering on a semi-desert climate
with a mean annual temperature over 25 °C (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 can receive over 250 millimetres (9.84 in) in a month during November and December.
The southwest monsoon
season from June 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.
In an extremely unusual occurrence, the normally arid
western side of Socotra received more than 410 millimetres (16.14 in) of rain from Cyclone Chapala
in November 2015.
Flora and fauna
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 three Critically Endangered and 27 Endangered plant species recognised in 2004.
The island group also has a rich fauna, including several endemic species of birds, such as the Socotra starling
), the Socotra sunbird
), Socotra bunting
), Socotra cisticola
), Socotra sparrow
), Socotra golden-winged grosbeak
), and a species in a monotypic genus, the Socotra warbler
Many of the bird species are endangered by predation by non-native feral cats
With only one endemic mammal, six 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 reptile species include skinks
, legless lizards
, and one species of chameleon
, Chamaeleo monachus
. There are many endemic invertebrates, including several spiders
(such as the Socotra Island Blue Baboon tarantulaMonocentropus balfouri
) and three species of freshwater crabs
in the Potamidae
and two species in Socotrapotamon
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 First century A.D Periplus of the Erythraean Sea
states that the island had crocodiles and large lizards, and the present reptilian fauna appears to be greatly diminished since that time. 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 sand gullies in place of rivers, and many native plants survive only where there is greater moisture or protection from roaming livestock.
The remaining Socotran fauna is greatly threatened by goats and other introduced species.
As a result of the 2015 Yemen civil war in mainland Yemen, Socotra became economically isolated, and fuel gas
prices spiked, causing residents to turn to wood for heat. In December 2018, UAE sent cooking gas
to Socotra residents to curb deforestation
caused by the cutting down of trees for fuel.
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 the International Organisation of Protecting Environment to classify the island archipelago among the major environmental heritages.
Island of Poets
In addition to its unique natural heritage, Socotra is also a living bank of archaic linguistic vestiges that pre-date Arabic and include Aramaic
. 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
, and Hobyot
, which became the subject of European academic study in the nineteenth century.
There is an ancient tradition of poetry and a poetry competition is held annually on the island.
The first attested Socotran poet is thought to be the ninth-century Fatima al-Suqutriyya
, a popular figure in Socotran culture.
A fish market in Socotra
Almost all inhabitants of Socotra, numbering about 50,000, live on the 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.
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 the populace had become 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
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.
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, notably those in mtDNA haplogroup N
, are unique to the island.
- the district of Hadibu, 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 Qalansiyah wa 'Abd-al-Kūrī, with a population of 10,557 and a district seat at Qalansiyah, consists of the minor islands of the archipelago (the island of 'Abd-al-Kūrī chief among them) and the western third of the main island.
In 2013, however, the archipelago was removed from the Hadramaut Governorate and created a governorate (Socotra Governorate
) in its own right, consisting of the two above-mentioned districts.
long made the archipelago inaccessible from June to September each year. In July 1999, however, a new airport opened Socotra to the outside world all year round. There was regular service to and from Aden
until the start of the civil war in 2015. All scheduled commercial flights made 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 south through the Dixsam Plateau.
According to 2012 and 2014 sources analysed by the American Enterprise Institute
's Critical Threats Project, a naval infantry brigade was stationed on Socotra at the time.
At the end of the 1990s, a United Nations Development Program
was launched to provide 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
Socotra is home to the polling and lottery distribution company Socotra Lottery Solutions.
Public transport on Socotra is limited to a few minibuses
; car hire usually means hiring a 4WD car and a driver.
Transport is a delicate matter on Socotra as road construction is considered locally to be detrimental to the island and its ecosystem. In particular, damage has occurred via chemical pollution from road construction while new roads have resulted in 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.
The United Arab Emirates funded the modernization of the port on Socotra.
Iranian companies were noted by a 2003 US diplomatic cable to have completed several projects in Yemen, including building the Socotra airport strip.
After cyclones hit Socotra in November 2015, the Emirates Red Crescent
set up a lighting system and built a fence in the airport.
However, during the deployment of Emirati troops
and aid to the Island, multiple flight connections were made between Abu Dhabi
as part of Emirati effort to provide Socotra residents with access to free healthcare and provide work opportunities.
The airport for Socotra was built in 1999. Before this modest airport, the island could only be reached by a cargo ship. The ideal time to visit Socotra is from October to April; the remaining months usually have heavy monsoon rainfall, making it difficult to survive the weather for tourists; flights also usually get cancelled.
The island lacks any well-established hotels, although there are a few guesthouses for the travelers to stay during their short visits.
Due to the Yemeni Civil War that started in 2015, tourism to Socotra Island has been affected. The island received over 1,000 tourists each year until 2014.
- Other sights
- Masirah Island, another island with a rugged terrain off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula
- Galápagos Islands, an archipelago of Ecuador which is also famous for its isolated geography and plant and animal species
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