The first flash of visual beauty to strike a visitor to Socotra is the brilliant shade of turquoise waters engulfing the island. The contrast with white sand beaches, along with verdant mountains and myriad brown hues of rock formations jutting against bright blue skies, is enchanting to the eye.
This is a fragile landscape largely devoid of tall buildings and other urban mainstays. The chief landmarks are natural wonders, including the endangered dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), Socotra’s calling card. Known as a’riyyeb in the Soqotri language, it’s unique to the island. Resembling a giant green mushroom on a forked stem, the tree name in Arabic means “the blood of two brothers,” a reference to the biblical parable of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. Local legend has it that when Abel was killed by his brother, his blood trickled into the earth, which produced a holy tree. The taming power of this myth is revealed in the transformation of an act of violence into something valuable: a tree whose blood-red sap has medicinal properties. It’s still used in traditional rituals and as an ingredient in cosmetics and wood dye.
“Beyond the visual splendour, a less tangible charm manifests in the sharing of resources.”
The world’s largest concentration of dragon blood trees is in the Fermahin Reserve at Socotra’s northern edge. Although 98 percent of the archipelago is set aside as nature reserves, the iconic tree is threatened by the effects of climate change, invasive plant species, overgrazing by livestock, and uncontrolled tourism development, all of which imperil the biodiversity of the four islands and two rocky outcrops that form the archipelago.
Socotra lies nearly 400 kilometres from the Arabian Peninsula, where the Gulf of Aden meets the Arabian Sea. Although the group of islands is part of Yemen, they’re geographically closer to the Horn of Africa.
According to the Encyclopaedia of Yemen, compiled by the al-Afif Cultural Foundation in 2003, the name Socotra may originate from dvipa sukhadara or “island of bliss” in Sanskrit.
A theory proposed by Daniel McLaughlin in his travel guide, Yemen, suggests that the name comes from souq al-qutra, or “the market of the drop,” a reference to trade on the island in frankincense, aloe, and sap from the dragon’s blood tree. Other sources say the name of island is Greek, taken from a South Arabian tribe.
Ongoing research suggests that at least 300 of 900 plant species are endemic the archipelago. That number is likely to rise, according to the General Authority for Environmental Protection in Hadhramaut and Socotra.
Over fifty caves are scattered throughout the mountains of the island. Writing in The Island of Phoenix, Russian researcher Vitaly Naumakin, who visited the Socotra archipelago in the 1970s as part of a joint Yemeni-Soviet scientific research mission, said some of these caves served as shelters during seasonal tornadoes and floods. Other caves were used as places of worship, including one called Hoq, which housed an ancient temple where Soqotris held religious rituals and hosted pilgrims over two thousand years ago. Inscriptions found in the cave, dating as early as the first century BCE, can be traced to India, South Arabia, Ethiopia, Greece, and Bactria, an ancient country in central Asia.
Isolation and Intrigue
Socotra’s distinctive cultural heritage arose out of the geographic isolation of the island. Soqotri is a South Semitic language rich in poetry, lyrical songs, and stories.
The inhabitants of the island are believed to have descended from Yemen’s ancient provinces. Today’s population consists of mountain dwellers and those who live along the coastal plains, with livelihoods based on fishing.
According to Julian Jansen van Rensburg, an archaeologist and ethnographer who specialises in Socotra at Free University of Berlin, it was a 1st-century Greek trader in Egypt who provided the earliest detailed historical account of the residents of the island. Socotra, the trader wrote, was ruled by the “king of the frankincense-bearing land” (Hadhramaut) and was leased to Arabian merchants.
“Soqotri society is characterised by social solidarity.”
Ahmed Saeed al-Arqabi, General Director of the Office of the General Authority of Antiquities and Museums in Socotra, credits the coexistence of various ethnicities over centuries for the diversity of the island’s current residents.
“The Soqotris of Arabic origin form the biggest groups,” he said. “We also find Soqotris of Indian and European origin, perhaps dating back to the period of Christianity on the island. But some Soqotris don’t belong to any other ethnic group.”
Christianity is believed to have arrived at Socotra around the 4th century and endured well over 1,000 years. Prior to the status of the island as a British protectorate in the 1880s, the island was ruled by the Mahra Sultanate in eastern Yemen from the 15th century onwards. Socotra joined independent South Yemen in 1967 and became part of the unified Republic of Yemen in 1990.
Centuries of Coexistence
Just as signs of coexistence in Socotra are revealed in people’s facial features that suggest generations of ethnic intermingling, they’re also evident in the customs and traditions on the island.
Socotra’s ancient songs and dances have roots in Africa, for example, while Indian culture is apparent in clothing styles. Khalak, a typical Soqotri woman’s dress, is derived from the Hindi name of the cloth from which it’s made; the masar, a headdress worn by brides, also originates in India.
Although Soqotri culture has embraced harmful practices such as early marriage and female genital mutilation, Vitaly Naumakin noted some social indicators of women’s autonomy. For example, women faced no difficulties obtaining a divorce and could remarry without any social stigma.
While some aspects of coexistence on the island have shifted over time, they are still present, said Asma al-Alimi, 22, a Soqotri media student at Hadhramaut University in Mukalla.
“Soqotri society is characterised by social solidarity,” she said, especially during the month of Ramadan, when women prepare food and send meals to mosques for iftar (breaking the fast) in exchange for income.
In another example, the word shamnah, which means “borrower,” refers to people in need who are granted a few goats on loan from their tribe. After milking them for a period of time, the shamnah can return the animals without paying a fee.
In the practice of ma’tibu, a shepherd is allowed to keep one goat as compensation for allowing his neighbour’s goats to graze with his own herd for a limited time.
In other examples of solidarity and charity, portions of milk, butter or ghee are regularly allocated to low-income families and other disadvantaged citizens.
Ahmed al-Rumaili, a Soqotri professor at Socotra Education College of Hadhramaut University who specialises in the cultural heritage of the island, points to a centuries-old tradition that further underscores coexistence in Socotra. For the weaving of hadhal, a wool fabric used to make clothing or blankets, women may travel from as far away as Ras Mumi, at the eastern edge of the island. This community effort, requiring broad participation, is reflected in a saying: “Women come all the way from Ras Rumi to help.” This refrain is mentioned in other situations when similar community cooperation is needed.
As enduring as these cultural practices may be, they must be matched by a determination to preserve Socotra’s unique ecosystem if the island’s natural beauty is to survive. This calls for vigilant environmental monitoring to ensure sustainable land use and prevent soil erosion and deforestation. Preserving an environmental integrity also strengthens ties between generations and deepens cultural heritage.