Socotra history

Socotra boasts not only with natural beauties but is also loaded with breathtaking stories born through its long history. It is determined to be a spot of exciting events as the island is located on ancient trade routes not far from the centers of powerfull civilisations. Moreover, it always flourished with unique natural treasures that were highly valued in the rest of the world. Unfortunatelly, the inhabitants of Socotra never introduced an alfabet to their language so similar to the languange of the Queen Sheba and never bothered with producing written documents. The history of the island must be therefore patiently extracted from other nations‘ chronicles, archeological findings and narrations of old shepherds and fishermen. 

Oldoway culture tools made of stone coming from as far as 1,5 million years BC found in the vicinity of Hadibo are most likely to be the evidence of the oldest settlements on the island. To put things correctly, we are not talking about humans yet but about their forerunners Homo habilis and Homo sapiens. Anyway it’s clear that even in prehistoric times Socotra didn’t stay away from the events and was tempting for adventurous characters.

The island of the Phoenix

The importance of the island had always been based on four almost miraculous commodities: frankincense with its deeply mysthic meaning for ancient nations, myrrh as a medicine and basis for luxurious perfumes, dragon blood used for body decorations and medical treatments, and aloe also very precious in traditional medicine. The value of these substances resulted in Socotra being much more famous in the ancient times than it is nowadays. As legends put it, the Egyptians used to visit Socotra to establish frankincense orchards because its resin was said to help spirits to reach the afterlife. According to the Phoenicians, the island used to be a home to the legendary Phoenix bird that lived on the frankincense and flew to the Egyptian city of Heliopolis every 500 years in order to rise from its ashes. Possibly due to high quality of local frankincense and its market value, the South Arabian tribes began to settle down on Socotra around 1000 BC.

The first mention of Socotra in record however does not concern the heavy smell of frankincense but the noise of weapons. During his war adventures, the young Greek titan Alexander the Great got attracted by Socotra. It is said that it was Alexander's tutor, Aristotle, who peaked interest in Socotra by referring to the availability of myrrh some time around 330 BC. Those sent to colonize the island were handpicked by Aristotle and came from his native town of Stageira. Their task was to colonize the island and turn it into Alexander’s base for his invasion to India and a rich source of healing myrrh that was more than handy to the Greeks so much involved in wars. Interestingly, this story was related by the Arab historian al-Masudi writing in the tenth century AD. As we all know, Alexander’s invasion to India was everything but success. However Socotra became a part of the Helenic world and was mentioned by many ancient authors.

Dragon blood market

First-century B.C. accounts (Diodorus of Sicily) report that Socotra supplied the entire world with myrrh, ladanum, and other aromatic plants. A huderd years later, Socotra appears as Dioskouridou in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek navigation aid. Such Antic remarks keep bringing up discussions about the origin of the name „Socotra“. Moreover, Dioskouridou which refers to two Greco-Roman heroes, Castor and Pollux, who were worshiped by sailors as their protectors, the name might be derived from Sanskrit dvipa sukhadhara ("island of bliss"). Other scholars attribute the name to Arabic origins: Suq, meaning market or emporium, and qutra meaning the "dragon's blood“. Anyway, Socotra always used to be connected with the vision of paradise which fact is not surprising to anyone who ever visited the island.

The location of Socotra also determined its importance as a popular stop over during coastal sails in the Indian ocean. Sailors and tradesmen not only bought precious resins and medical herbs here which they later on sold at markets in the Roman empire or the Indian kingdoms but also gained strength and supplies necessary for their long journeys to the African coast, Madagascar or to Persia. Till nowadays, inscriptions in various ancient languages can be found in Hoq cave and in other places around the island usually stating that a certain sailor stayed there and what he was doing. A rich cultural life from the beginning of the first century is proved by engravings in the rocky subsoil found east of Hadibo.

The arrival of Christianity

As the Christianity had been rising up, the frankincense market had been declining and also Socotra had been losing its importance as a source of one of the best frankincense species. However it kept its imporatance as a trade hotspot. Therefore even Thomas the Apostel stopped there on his way to India in 52 AD. Well, his visit was not completely deliberate, he is said to suffer a shipwreck. But he didn’t hesitate and built in his holy exstasy a church made of his ship wreckage and baptised the offspring of the Greek conquerors as well as newcomers from India and Hadramawt. This is how Socotra became one of the Christian settlements, a part of Asyrian church, and stayed like that surprisingly long.

The Asyrian church following Nestor the patriarch from Constantinopol who had strongly influenced the church was an early form of the Christianity coming from the first followers of Jesus Christ yet untouched by the Greek and Latin influence. It did not become a part of Catholicims but stayed faithfull to its roots so it did not respect the Roman pope and had its own patriach located in Baghdad. It was one of a few forms of the Christianity respected by Muslim rulers. Maybe that was the reason why it survived on the island for so long even after Socotra was subjected to the Mahra sultan in 10th century AD (nowadays Mahra is the eastern part of Yemen). It was not a real seizure but rather annexation made by sending sultan‘s own colonizers. Despite such Muslim influx most of the inhabitants stayed Christian as stated by the Arab geographer Abu Mohammed Al-Hassan Al-Hamdani.

 

Even through the Middle Ages the island was an important part of the world. Socotra is mentioned in the Million travelogue by famous Venetian traveler and later adviser of the Mongol khan and Chinese emperor, Marco Polo. It’s hard to say whether he really visited the island during his travels in 13th century but he is convincing in his descriptions of local Christian inhabitants and their supernatural ability to control the weather and to cause shipwrecks. Socotris were skilled fishermen and sailors and even though they lived just on fish and rice the island with its trade buzz was a frequent target of pirates. So no wonder that its people, even though Christians, didn’t hesitate to use various devilish tricks and wiles.

Socotra as a toy of imperial powers

While Socotra lived a peaceful life with fishing and simple trade, travelers, adventurers, and conquistadors turned the world upside down. The idea of a flat Earth lying on backs of four elephants got thanks to desire for Indian spices, gold and precious stones transformed into a globe very tempting to be discovered. In mid-15th century, Portugese sailors made it around the southern tip of Africa opening the way to the legendary treasures of the Orient. But the Portugese dream about the world trade imperium was facing a vast blue Indian ocean controlled by Arab ships. Their defeat should have been supported by building a coastal network of fortresses.

Socotra was chosen for the fortress network. The island had a convenient location on trade routes and was basically an ideal spot to take control over the Arab and Red Sea. The Portugese king Manuel I sent a fleet of 16 ships commanded by Tristão da Cunha in 1506. Their task was to liberate Socotri Christians suffering under the Islamic rule of the Mahra sultans. That was the official reason for the operation. The real goal was to seize the island and set up a Portugese base for attacks on Arabs in the eastern and southern Africa.

After months spent on the sea with frequent attacks on Arab settlements in Africa, the Portugese finally managed to take over the island. Nearby the then capital of Suq they started to erect a fortress which ruins are visible till nowadays. Suprisingly, they did not win the favour of local inhabitants. Suq was the site of a fierce battle between locals and the Portugese garrison. Even though the invaders won, the idea of Portugese seizure of the island turned out to be unlucky. Soon after, the Mahri sultans joined Socotra to their land again.

The victory of Islam

The Portugese invasion could not stop the ongoing fall of Christianity on Socotra. Local Christians gradually converted to Islam or they came back to the belief in spirits and natural deities. Last evidence of once flourishing church were destroyed by the invasion of Wahabits at the end of 18th century. Islamic sectarians pulled down remaining crosses, churches and books written in Syrian language. Nowadays, only some church walls, cross engravings from 1st century and scarce Christian tombs can be spotted.

The Portugese failure didn’t discourage other European colonizers from their own attempts to get controll over the sea routes of the Orient. Even though under the reign of the Mahri sultanate, Socotra became a dream for the newborn great power, the English kingdom. The East India Company established to spread English trade and strongholds into Africa and further east reached Tamrida, the new Socotri capital (today Hadibo), already in 1608. Even to English sailors Socotra seamed an ideal source of well traded medicinal products but first of all a calm port to gain strength and supplies during their long journeys to the East and back. From that time on, the English ships made stop overs on Socotra regularly.

Socotra draws attention

At the beginning of the 19th century, the English plan to controll Socotra became more precise. The strategic potential of the island was to be explored. In 1834, Lieutenant Wellsted of the Indian army effectuated a surveying mission of the Island of Socotra on behalf of the East India Company. His survey brought up many interesting findings concerning nature and Socotri society and became a benchmark for upcoming research. Socotra suddenly attracts biologists, geologists and other researchers.

With the invention of the steam engine, the sea transportation got much faster and intense. The British empire was in urgent need for new ports to refill water and coal on its ships. To strengthen its influence in the Red Sea and trade routes heading to the Far East, the British finally took control over the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula around the port of Aden. The Mahri sultanate and Socotra island were included. The British protectorate pronounced in 1886 had a puppet government of the sultan dynasty of Banu Afrar. A sultan palace can be seen till today in Hadibo. Frequent stops of British steamers by Socotri coast raised the importance of Socotra even though without any effect on local inhabitants who remained just ordinary fishermen and shepherds.


 

Slowly running history of Socotra was further disturbed by the second world war. The British opened an airplane base on the island near the village of Suq. A military graveyard with ten graves is located on a hill near the airport of Mori. All deceised are said to be victims of airplane crashes. A German submarine found its way once to Socotri shore torpeding a traditional dhow boat. It was not a heroic act and was punished by a RAF squadron that sank the submarine near the village of Qalansiya.

Staight to communism

The second world war ended not only millions of human lives but also the time of old collonial powers. Even though it took another 20 years, the Mahri sultanate and other British protectorates in southern Arabia were abolished and the British granted independence to South Yemen. The following month, Socotra became part of the People's Republic of South Yemen. Within two years, Marxists took over and the country became known as the the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, the one and only Arab communist state in the world.

Strong ties of the South Yemen to USSR represented mainly by economic help coming from the Soviet Union resulted in strategic surrendering of Socotra (but also some ports on the mainland) to Soviet admirals. Socotra became again a toy in hands of imperias going after their own opportunistic interests. The island located close to oil deposits and tanker routes was meant strictly for military use. Even a secret submarine base was considered. From 1970s, the island was closed to the world and opened again only after the Yemeni unification in 1990. Without any trace of the submarine base and with a couple of rusty tanks heading their cannons to the sea.

The paradise foir researchers and tourists

Opening of Socotra in 1990s brought a new wave of interest of researchers in local ecosystem. Well preserved, unique biodiversity lead into listing Socotra as the natural World Heritage Site in 2008. The nature beauties attracted also many adventurous tourists. The final end of Socotri isolation was the opening of an airport in 1999.

 

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