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Native name: Suquṭra سقطرى
Socotra satview.jpg

Landsatview over Socotra 12°29′20.97″N 53°54′25.73″E / 12.4891583, 53.9071472

Socotra overview.PNG
LocationIndian Ocean
Coordinates12°29′20.97″N 53°54′25.73″E / 12.4891583, 53.9071472Coordinates: 12°29′20.97″N 53°54′25.73″E / 12.4891583, 53.9071472
ArchipelagoSocotra islands
Total islands4
Major islandsSocotra, Abd al Kuri, Samhah, Darsah
Area3,796 km² (1,466 sq mi)
Highest pointunnamed point in the Haghier Mountains (1,503 m (4,930 ft))
Flag of Yemen Yemen
GovernorateHadhramaut Governorate
DistrictsHidaybū (east)
Qulensya Wa Abd Al Kuri (west)
Largest cityH̨adībū (8,545)
Population42,842 (as of 2004 census)
Density11.3 people/km2
Ethnic groupspredominantly Arab; but also Afro-Arab, South Asian, Somali, and European

Socotra or Soqotra (Arabic سقطرى ; Suquṭra) is a small archipelago of four islands and islets in the northwest Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden. Nearly 190 nautical miles (220 mi/350 km) south of the Arabian Peninsula, the archipelago is 250 kilometers (155 mi) long, west to east, and protracts from continental Africa along the Horn of Africa. It is part of the Republic of Yemen.

The islands are known for unique flora and fauna, of which 37 percent of its plant species, 90 percent of its reptile species and 95 percent of its land snail species are not found anywhere else. Globally significant populations of land and sea birds (192 bird species, 44 of which breed on the islands while 85 are regular migrants) are supported on Socotra. This number includes a number of threatened species. The region's marine life also displays great diversity. In and around Socotra 253 species of reef-building corals, 730 species of coastal fish and 300 species of crab, lobster and shrimp exist.

This archipelago of rich biodiversity was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The main island, as one of the most biodiversity rich and distinct islands in the world, has been termed the “Galápagos of the Indian Ocean.” Its name is believed to come from the Sanskrit 'dvipa sakhadara', which can be translated as 'Island of Bliss'.

Geography and climate

Socotra is one of the most isolated landforms on Earth of continental origin (rather than volcanic origin). The islands of the archipelago stand on coral banks and are believed to have once been connected with the African and Arabian mainlands as part of the ancient southern supercontinent of Gondwana. They detached during the Middle Pliocene (ca 6 million years ago), 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 (3,625 km² or 1,400 sq mi), the three smaller islands of Abd al Kuri, Samhah, and Darsa, and small rock outcrops like Ka’l Fir’awn and Sābūnīyah that are uninhabitable by humans but important for birds.

Socotra is the largest island in the Arab world, of an estimated total of 258 islands occupying an area of 6,811 km², dispersed throughout the region stretching from the Persian Gulf to North Africa's Maghreb in the Mediterranean Sea.[1]

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 5,000 feet (1,525 m). The main island is a little over 80 miles (130 km) long east to west and typically 18-22 miles (30-35 km) north to south.

The climate is generally tropical desert, with rainfall being light, seasonal, and more abundant at the higher ground in the interior than along the coastal lowlands. The monsoon season brings strong winds and high seas.

Flora and fauna

Socotra is rich in terms of biodiversity, comparing favorably with such island groups as Galapagos, Mauritius, and the Canary Islands. It has been referred to as the "jewel" of biodiversity in the Arabian Sea.[2]

The long geological isolation of the Socotra archipelago and its fierce heat and drought have combined to create a unique and spectacular endemic flora. Surveys have revealed that of a total of nearly 900 species, a 37 percent are endemic; ranking it in the top five islands in terms of endemic flora.[1] Botanists rank the Socotra flora among the ten most endangered island flora in the world, vulnerable to introduced species (such as goats), climate change, and modernization. The archipelago is a site of global importance for biodiversity conservation and a possible center for ecotourism.

One of the most striking of Socotra's plants is the dragon's blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), which is an unusual looking, umbrella-shaped tree. Lore has it that its red sap was the dragon's blood of the ancients, sought after as a medicine and a dye. Another unusual plant is Dorstenia gigas, a succulent that can grow to eight feet tall and have a trunk of up to two feet or more in diameter.

The island group also has a fairly rich bird fauna, including a few types of endemic birds, such as the Socotra Starling Onychognathus frater, the Socotra Sunbird Nectarinia balfouri, Socotra Sparrow Passer insularis and Socotra Grosbeak Rhynchostruthus socotranus.

As with many isolated island systems, bats are the only mammals native to Socotra. In contrast, the marine biodiversity around Socotra is rich, characterized by a unique mixture of species that have originated in far-flung biogeographic regions: the western Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, Arabia, East Africa and the wider Indo-Pacific.


In 1996 Yemen ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), an international treaty that was adopted in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 and entered into force on December 29, 1993. Also in 1996, Yemen declared the Socotra Archipelago a special, natural area in urgent need of protection. The CBD covers all ecosystems, species, and genetic resources and links traditional conservation efforts to the economic goal of using biological resources sustainably. It sets principles for the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources, notably those destined for commercial use. Importantly, the Convention is legally binding; countries that join it ('Parties') are obliged to implement its provisions. This is seen as a means of a possible boost to Socotra's economy as well as a way to provide protection to the natural environment.

The island was recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a natural World Heritage Site in July 2008. The European Union has supported such a move, calling on both UNESCO and the International Organization of Protecting Environment to classify the island archipelago among the environmental heritages.[3]


The inhabitants of Socotra have no written history. What is known of the islands is gathered from references dispersed in records of those who have visited the islands, including works in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, Danish and Arabic.

Socotra appears as Dioskouridou ("of the Dioscurides") in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a 1st century C.E. Greek navigation aid. In the notes to his translation of the Periplus, G.W.B. Huntingford remarks that the name Socotra is not Greek in origin, but derives from the Sanskrit dvipa sukhadhara, meaning "island of bliss." Other scholars attribute the name to Arabic origins: Suq, means market or emporium, and qutra is a vulgar form of qatir, which refers to "dragon's blood"—one of the main traded resources for which the island has been known for millennia, the resin of the Dragon tree.[1]

Map of the Socotra archipelago

The first mention of Socotra in record is the colonization of the island by the Greeks at the time of Alexander the Great when he was contemplating the invasion of India, about 330 B.C.E. It is said that it was Alexander's tutor, Aristotle, who peaked interest in Socotra by referring to the availability of myrrh, which was widely used at the time for medicinal purposes. Those sent to colonize the island were handpicked by Aristotle and came from his native town. It is recorded that, "They overcame the Indians who were there and took hold of the island".[4]

First-century B.C.E. accounts (Diodorus of Sicily) report that Socotra kept the entire world provided with myrrh, ladanum, and other aromatic plants. The island's aloes, "was from very early times an important article of commerce, and was produced almost entirely on Socotra." The island's central location within the sea-born trade routes of the Indian Ocean secured its importance as a trading post. "The shores of the Arabian Gulf produced an ever-rising value of frankincense and myrrh; while the cloths and precious stones, the timbers and spices—particularly cinnamon—brought from India largely by Indian vessels, were redistributed at Socotra or Guardafui [Somalia], and carried to the Nile and the Mediterranean".[5]

The Greek community converted to Christianity when it became the adopted religion of the Greco-Roman world. A local tradition holds that the inhabitants were converted to Christianity by Thomas the Apostle in 52 C.E. In the tenth century the Arab geographer Abu Mohammed 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, according to which "the inhabitants are baptized Christians and have an archbishop" who, it is further explained, "has nothing to do with the Pope at Rome, but is subject to an archbishop who lives at Baghdad." They were Nestorians who also practiced ancient magic rituals despite the warnings of their archbishop. One of the motivating factors of the many trade excursions during the sixteenth-century, and late-nineteenth-century scientific expeditions was partly the search for "the survival of vestigial Christianity among its people" and the remains of its physical evidence on Socotra's landscape, such as churches.[1]

In 1507, Portugal landed an occupying force at the then capital of Suq, to "liberate" the assumed friendly Christians from Arab Islamic rule. However they were not welcomed as enthusiastically as they had expected and abandoned the island four years later. The islands passed under the control of the Mahra sultans in 1511.

In 1600, England's Queen Elizabeth granted a monopoly to the East India Company to trade beyond Africa, bring the British into the Indian Ocean. It was in the early 1800s that they engaged Socotra, finally making it a British protectorate in 1876, along with the remainder of the Mahra State of Qishn and Socotra. It was under the British that extractive industries and the development of commercial agriculture occurred. This era's expanding global marketplace brought with it an interest in the systematic classification of all the world's flora and fauna. While the motivating factor may have been commercial, Socotra soon garnered the interests of botanists and scientists for its unique endemic species and unpolluted environment.

In October 1967 the Mahra sultanate was abolished and the British granted independence to South Yemen. The following month, on November 30, Socotra became part of the People's Republic of South Yemen. Within three years, the country became known as the the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. The new republic adopted Marxism, the first Marxist state in the Arab world. This heightened tensions in the region during the Cold War, and Socotra was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1979, at which time the island was converted into a military base. It was later discovered that there was no major military investment made to Socotra's landscape; only cosmetic camouflage designed by the Soviets to protect their area.[1]

Socotra has been a part of the Republic of Yemen since 1990.

People and economy

Socotra Archipelago*
UNESCO World Heritage Site

Trees of genus Dracaena
State Party Flag of Yemen Yemen
Type Natural
Criteria x
Reference 1263
Region** Arab States
Inscription history
Inscription 2008  (32nd Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.

The archipelago's inhabitants are of Arab, Somali, Greek, and South Asian origins. They speak Soqotri, an unwritten Semitic language related to other Modern South Arabian Languages that include six different languages; Mehri, Harsusi, Bathari, Jibbali, and Hobyot, along with Soqotri. The language is believed to have its roots in Sabea, the Queen of Sheba's ancient city state on the southern Arabian mainland. It was part of the Old South Arabian Languages, which also included Minaean and Qatabanian among others. They were the spoken among the advanced civilizations which were established in the southeastern part of Yemen during the period between the thirteenth and tenth centuries B.C.E. Soqotri has no words for things that are not found on the island, in which case they must borrow from Arabic.

The chief products of the island are dates, ghee, tobacco, and fish. Some residents also raise cattle and goats. Tourism has boosted the economy in recent decades.

Nearly all inhabitants of Socotra, estimated at nearly 50,000,[2] live on the main island. The principal city is Hadiboh. The second largest town is Qulansiyah, followed by Qād̨ub. These three main towns are all located on the north coast. 'Abd-al-Kūrī and Samha have a population of a few hundred people between them; Darsa and the remaining islands are uninhabited.

The archipelago forms two districts of the Yemeni Hadhramaut Governorate:

  • Hidaybū (حديبو), capital H̨adībū, consisting of about the eastern two-thirds of the main island of Socotra, with a population of 32,285
  • Qulansiyah wa 'Abd-al-Kūrī (قلنسيه وعبد الكوري), capital Qulansiyah, consisting of the western third of the main island, and the minor islands, specifically 'Abd-al-Kūrī, with a population of 10,557

Traditionally, the archipelago has been inaccessible from June to September due to monsoon weather. In July 1999 the Socotra Island Airport opened Socotra to the outside year round, with Yemenia providing flights once a week to Aden and Sanaa. The airport is located about 12 km west of the main city, H̨adībū, and near the third largest city, Qād̨ub.

Electricity is widely available in Socotra with installations of diesel generators, but in Hadiboh there is no electricity from 5:00 am until 9:00 am daily. There are two paved roads, built in 2005: one along the north shore from Quelensiyah to Hadiboh and then to DiHamri area, and another from the north coast to the south coast through the Dixsam plateau. There is neither public transport nor taxis available on Socotra island, but rent-a-car service is available. The former capital is located to the east of Hadiboh. On the western end of Hadiboh lies a small Yemeni army barracks. The President of Yemen has a residence there as well.

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.

Looking to the future

Socotra is remote and inaccessible, its people poor, and is often described as being among the most disadvantaged group of islands anywhere in the world. Tourism can provide a source of income, yet there are fears of damage to the environment.

The island is being discussed as a potential biodiversity preserve, a unique research station for biodiversity studies as well as an international destination for ecotourism. The development of ecotourism on Socotro, in conjunction with the guidelines of the Convention on Biological Diversity, would ensure the establishment of biotic areas along with anthropological reserves, enabling the local people to enhance their livelihoods while maintaining their traditional lifestyles. The careful implementation of these plans can positively impact the future of the archipelago.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Serge D. Elie. 2002. A Historical Genealogy of Socotra as an Object of Mythical Speculation, Scientific Research & Development Experiment American Institute for Yemeni Studies. Retrieved December 30, 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Alistair Lyon. April 23, 2008. FACTBOX-Socotra, jewel of biodiversity in Arabian Sea. Reuters. Retrieved January 5, 2009.
  3. Yemen News Agency (SABA). April 15, 2008.EU to protect Socotra archipelago environment Retrieved January 5, 2009.
  4. A. Ubaydli. 1989. "The Population of Suqutra in the early Arabic Sources." Seminar for Arabian Studies 19, 137-54.
  5. Wilfred H. Schoff. 1995. The Periplus of the Erythraean sea: travel and trade in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi: Munshiram Monoharlal Publishers. ISBN 8121506999

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Agafonov, Vladimir. "Temethel as the Brightest Element of Soqotran Folk Poetry." Folia Orientalia, vol. 42/43, 2006/07, pp. 241-249
  • Biedermann, Zoltán. 2006. Soqotra Geschichte einer christlichen Insel im Indischen Ozean vom Altertum bis zur frühen Neuzeit. Maritime Asia, Vol. 17. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. ISBN 9783447054218
  • Botting, Douglas. 2006. Island of the dragon's blood. London: Steve Savage. ISBN 9781904246213.
  • Burdick, Alan. March 25, 2007. The Wonder Land of Socotra, Yemen The New York Times. Retrieved December 30, 2008.
  • Carter, Mike. April 16, 2006. The land that time forgot The Observer. Retrieved December 30, 2008.
  • Casson, Lionel. 1989. The Periplus maris Erythraei: text. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Pr. ISBN 0691040605
  • Cheung, Catherine, Lyndon DeVantier, and Kay van Damme. 2006. Socotra: a natural history of the islands and their people. Hong Kong: Odyssey. ISBN 9622177700
  • Doe, D. Brian. 1970. Socotra; an archaeological reconnaissance in 1967. Coconut Grove, Fla: Field Research Projects. OCLC 131477
  • Doe, D. Brian. 1992. Socotra: island of tranquillity. London: Immel. ISBN 9780907151319
  • Elie, Serge D. 2002. A Historical Genealogy of Socotra as an Object of Mythical Speculation, Scientific Research & Development Experiment American Institute for Yemeni Studies. Retrieved December 30, 2008.
  • Elie, S. D. 2006. "Soqotra: South Arabia's Strategic Gateway and Symbolic Playground." BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES. 33 (2): 131-160. ISSN 1353-0194
  • Elie, D. Serge. 2004. Hadiboh: From Peripheral Village to Emerging City. Chroniques Yemenites, 12
  • Farrar, John. The Island of the Dragon's Blood Tree Soqotra. Retrieved December 30, 2008.
  • Polo, Marco, and R. E. Latham. 1982. The travels of Marco Polo. Penguin classics. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books. pp 296-297, ISBN 0140440577
  • Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Soqotra's Misty Future Retrieved December 30, 2008.
  • Schoff, Wilfred H. 1995. The Periplus of the Erythraean sea: travel and trade in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi: Munshiram Monoharlal Publishers. ISBN 8121506999

External links

All links retrieved January 30, 2023.


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