Socotra History – Learn about the Socotra Island Past
Socotra was called Dioskouridou (“of the Dioscurides”) in the 1st century AD in the “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”, an early shipping manual. “Dioscoridou” is a large desert or marsh consisting of rivers with crocodiles, snakes and great lizards (of which the flesh is eaten and the fat melted and used instead of olive oil). The island he described was Socotra, which today forms part of the Republic of Yemen. Crocodiles and giant lizards referred to by the author of the Periplus are no longer found today.
No fossils have so far been discovered, but this is not to say that they did not exist. Indeed the Indian Ocean crocodile survived until the 17th century AD, as described by sailors visiting Seychelles, which lies 1,600 km south.
From a natural history viewpoint, Socotra remains one of the fascinating places in the world. Its unique character is the result of a long period of isolation. Many animals and plants that live today on Socotra are found nowhere else on earth. A very high degree of endemism makes Socotra a vital place in global wildlife conservation and is called the Galapagos of the East.
It is believed that some of the plants and animals found on Socotra are ancient relics from a much larger land mass (Africa), preserved here because the Hagghir Massif did not submerge.
In the notes to his translation of the Periplus, G.W.B. Huntingford remarks that the name Suqotra is not Greek in origin but from the Sanskrit word sukhadhara (“island of bliss”).
Another probable origin of the name is the Arabic “Suq” meaning “market” and “qotra” meaning “dripping frankincense”. The ancient frankincense route to Jerusalem and Europe began on Socotra. The present town of Suq on the north coast near Hadiboh was the port from which the frankincense (and myrrh and aloes) started its journey.
The inhabitants of Socotra Island were converted to Christianity by Thomas The Apostle in AD 52. During his frequent journeys to India, Thomas was later shipwrecked, and the shipwreck was used to build a church. In the 10th century, the Arab geographer Abu Zaid Hassan stated that in his time, most of the inhabitants were Christians.
The famous Venetian traveller Marco Polo (1254-1324) visited Socotra and accused the Socotrans of having a supernatural ability to control the weather and to cause shipwrecks. He wrote of Socotra, saying, “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.
The explorer Tristão da Cunha was ashore in the early 16th century and considered Socotra conquered for Portugal. He landed at the previously mentioned port town of Suq, which was the old capital of the Socotran sultans. A military force soon occupied Suq (but not Socotra) for about seven years, from 1504 to 1511. Suq was the site of a fierce battle with the Suqotrans, partly the cause of the eventual Portuguese departure, although the deprivation of living there was also a significant factor.
Today, the remains of the old Portuguese fort can be seen by climbing the rocky outcrop beside Suq, and the rump pillars of a church built by the Portuguese can be seen on the edge of the town. At this time, Christianity had disappeared from the island except for stone crosses, which the Portuguese Alvares said people worshipped. However, during a visit to the island in 1542, Francis Xavier found a group of people claiming to be descended from the converts made by St. Thomas.
The islands passed under the control of the Mahra sultans in 1511 but eventually became a British protectorate in 1886, and it became an essential strategic stop-over for British shipping in the area. It was a substantial air base for the British in World War 2, and the remains of the main airfield can be seen inland from Suq. Some 10 British airmen are buried on cemetery hill near the Mori airfield, and all these were killed in crashes during World War 2.
A German U boat scuttled a dhow off Qalansiya and was sunk by later air force action. With the independence of South Yemen from the British in 1969, the islands came under the southern government of the Democratic Republic of Yemen, and then after unification with the north in 1990, the island came under the governance of the new Republic of Yemen.
Apart from some 19th-century travel accounts (such as Bent) and a few more recent expeditions, including that of the Oxford University team led by Douglas Botting (July-August 1955) and a British joint-services and civilian journey (in 1967), the Socotra archipelago has received relatively little attention from the scientific community, being virtually isolated from the rest of the world.
Until the end of the twentieth century, it was effectively closed to foreign visitors because of military considerations and extreme natural conditions.
Books have been published by the leaders of the above expeditions, which can be found in the extensive English libraries of the world. (see Island of the Dragons Blood, by Douglas Botting, from the 1955 expedition, and Socotra: Island of Tranquillity, by Brian Doe, published by Immel Publishing, 1992). More recent books of excellent quality and scholarship have been published about Socotran fauna and flora by Wolfgang Wranik, Tony Miller and Miranda Morris, who have devoted many years of research to Socotra since the early 1980s.
Publications are now available at the centre for the Socotra Conservation and Development Fund in Hadiboh, which began in the late 1990s as a United Nations research and development venture, and has done considerable scientific research on the Socotra Archipelago.