Socotra or Soqotra is a small archipelago of four islands and islets in the Indian Ocean off the coast of the Horn of Africa some 190 nautical miles (220 mi; 350 km) south of the Arabian peninsula, belonging to the Republic of Yemen. It has long been a part of the 'Adan Governorate, but in 2004 it became attached to the Hadhramaut Governorate, which is much closer to the island than 'Adan (although the closest governorate would be Al Mahrah). The name of the island is believed to come from Sanskrit 'dvipa sakhadara', which can be translated with 'Island of Bliss'. THE ROOF OF ARABIA: One of the oldest inhabited regions worldwide transports visitors back into the world of thousand and one nights. Close to nature and unspoiled natural beauty, Yemen this age-old center of civilization preserves a way of life that has hardly changed since the middle ages. More after the break...
Geography and climate Socotra is one of the most isolated landforms on Earth of continental origin (i.e., not of volcanic origin). The archipelago was once part of the supercontinent of Gondwana and 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 Sabuniyah that are uninhabitable by humans but important for birds.
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 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 (winter) 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 considered the "jewel" of biodiversity in the Arabian sea. The long geological isolation of the Socotra archipelago and its fierce heat and drought have combined to create a unique and spectacular endemic flora (which may, therefore, be vulnerable to introduced species such as goats and to climate change). Surveys have revealed that more than a third of the 800 or so plant species of Socotra are found nowhere else. Botanists rank the flora of Socotra among the ten most endangered island flora in the world. 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 a strange-looking, umbrella-shaped tree. 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.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 farflung biogeographic regions: the western Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, Arabia, East Africa and the wider Indo-Pacific.
History Socotra appears as Dioskouridou ("of the Dioscurides") in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a 1st century A.D. 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 ("island of bliss").
A local tradition holds that the inhabitants were converted to Christianity by Thomas in AD 52. In the 10th 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 but they also practiced ancient magic rituals despite the warnings of their archbishop.
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. Later, in 1886 it became a British protectorate, along with the remainder of the Mahra State of Qishn and Socotra. For the British it was an important strategic stop-over. The P&O ship Aden sank after being wrecked on a reef near Socotra, in 1897, with the loss of 78 lives.
In October 1967 the Mahra sultanate was abolished. One of the last living direct descendents of the ruling Mahra sultanate, Dushi Parameswaran, is currently residing in Chicago, Illinois, USA. On November 30th Socotra became part of the People's Republic of South Yemen (later to become the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen). Today it is part of the Republic of Yemen.
NATURE While the people help make Socotra a haven in a hostile world, the island is also a natural wonderland. From the aqua lagoon at Qalansiya to the snow-white dunes at Ras Momi, from the alpine meadows of the Haggier Mountains to the desolation of Nowgad, Socotra is a land of surprising contrasts. Rising to over 1700 meters, the Haggier Mountains loom over Hadibo, Socotra's administrative capital. The red granite of the peaks has been stained a ghostly gray by the lichens, which grow thickly above tree line. Perennial streams radiate from the misty heights, green ribbons of life teaming with endemic fish and freshwater crabs. Limestone plateaus fan east and west, providing alkaline soils for the iconic Dragon's Blood Tree. Bottle trees grow in such profusion that entire hillsides turn pink following winter rains. Cucumber trees, statuesque relative of the melon, provide fodder for starving animals during times of drought.