Socotra is the largest in a small archipelago of four islands which include The Brothers (Samhah and Darsa) and Abd al Kuri. It lies in the Indian Ocean on a mid-oceanic volcanic ridge 500km roughly 130km long and 35km wide. Its name may be derived from the Arabic suqs qutra, means (the market of dragon’s blood”- a reference to the resin of its most famous tree species, or from a Sanscrit term for the “abode of the blest”.
Positioned near the southern gateway to the Red Sea, Socotra has been famous since ancient times. By the time of Abraham, traders from Egypt, Africa, India and Arabia called in here.
Ancient Egypt knew Socotra as the Island of the Genie- The spirit of the sacred tree, whose gum they used for mummification, temple offerings and medicine. In the first century AD the Greeks called Socotra, Dioscoridea. The Hadramout kingdom traded here out of Qana, near present-day Bir Ali, and later the Himyarites sailed here from Muza on the Red Sea.
The island’s population has now reached 100.000. The people speak the unique Socotri language.
Due to the island’s isolation and the fact that human activity has been kept to a minimum, about 30 per cent of its flora is unique to the archipelago. Domestic animals – camels, assess, goats, sheep and cats – were brought in by traders, but a natural balance has been reached and is preserved by the management of livestock to prevent overgrazing.
There are traditional restrictions on felling live trees. The vegetation is of great interest to botanists. Over 815 species of plant have now been recorded, and around 250 exist nowhere else in the world. There are seven species of frankincense tree on the island. This comprises one of the richest island floras in the world. Socotra has been described as the “Galapagos of the Arabian peninsula”.
The coastal plains tend to be fairly arid and vegetation is sparse. The foothills of the mountains display a shrubby landscape with incense trees and bizarre bottle-trunked trees. The species for which the island is renowned in evergreen woodland over the centre and east of the island and is the dominant tree in some areas.
The island is, also, one of the most important homes for rare birds in the Middle East, with over a hundred species of which seven are endemic. Around the coasts are large numbers of dolphins and some whales, in particular sperm whales.