Saturday, 10 September 2011

Yemen - Socotra, the island of blissful Sorcerers

It's interesting that each and every country/place I've researched about for this blog has a region or an area that is very much 'at the edge' of that country/place's culture.  Whether it's Bayan-Olgii, the Kazakh-speaking western province of Mongolia, or Limburg in the southern Netherlands, Oklahoma has its panhandle and Xinjiang/Uyghuristan has the Ili Valley.  Even Hong Kong has its New Territories.  For Yemen, the island of Socotra is the part that doesn't quite fit in - not really Yemeni, it's closer to Somalia and Africa than to Yemen.

Kent in the Indian ocean

Socotra Landscape by Stefan Geens
With a population of 42,000, Socotra is the same size as Kent in England (or Long Island, for my North American readers).  It's an incredibly isolated place, being cut off from the rest of the world for six months of the year by ferocious sea storms that make it too perilous to sail there.  No doubt, in our age of air travel, it's more accessible than ever, but Socotra retains an aura of mystery - it's an island of Makolis (or sorcerers), a windswept outpost in the Indian ocean, where witch-trials continued well into the 20th century. Socotra is far from the mountains of Sana'a and the baking desert sands of the Hadramawt. 

The Island of Bliss

The name 'Socotra' is believed to have come from the Sanskrit for 'Island of Bliss', dvipa sukhadhara, which the Ancient Greeks called dioskouridou.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the people of Socotra speak their own language, Soqotri, which is one of the oldest surviving South Arabian languages, related to Arabic, but linguistically closer to the languages of Ethiopia.  I guess it's the equivalent of Icelandic for us, ie. a language that has existed in relative isolation for a long time, which means it has preserved some archaic words and structures that the mainland languages have since lost. 

Blood from the Dragon's Tree

Dragon's Blood Trees by Stefan Geens
One thing you might already know about Socotra and, again hardly suprising, considering its isolation from the continent land masses, is that it has incredibly high levels of biodiversity.  More than a third of Socotra's plant species are endemic, ie. they're not found anywhere else on Earth.  This is similar to the situation in other isolated island groups, eg. Hawaii, the Galapagos Islands and Madagascar.  Like those other island groups, Socotra has been recognised as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site.  I've come across UNESCO's work again and again, as I've been researching this blog and I really love what they're doing to help preserve many beautiful sites around the world. 

It's also quite interesting that, despite the diversity of plant life in Socotra, the only mammal that is native to the island is the bat!  Perhaps one of the most interesting trees on Socotra (and an unofficial symbol of the island) is the Dragon's Blood tree.  Not only does it have an interesting umbrella-like shape, but it also has red sap, believed in ancient times to be the blood of a dragon.  Dragon's blood was seen as a cure for many ailments and in the 18th-century, dragon's blood resin was exported to Italy, where it was used as a varnish for violins. 

A very 16th-century Crusade

Crabs on Qansaliyah beach by Stefan Geens
Perhaps it was Marco Polo who started the rumours about a 'lost' Christian tribe living on Socotra and when the Portuguese arrived in the Indian ocean in the early 16th century, they showed a brief interest in Socotra as a stopping point on the way to India. They also had a religious objective in mind, ie. to liberate their supposed 'fellow Christians' from the tyranny of their Islamic overlords.  The British also took an interest in Socotra and I can see why, as an island nation, other islands have always been an attractive subject for the British crown (eg, the Caribbean islands, New Zealand and Hong Kong. Even Aden is an island!). 

Eco-tourism on Socotra

Fish for dinner in Hadiboh by Stefan Geens
Modern Socotra seems as oddly out of the place as it has ever been.  For a poor country like Yemen, the possible implications of an eco-tourist industry on Socotra must seem very promising, far away from the civil strife of the Arab spring.  I guess isolation has its up-side!  Even more isolated than the main island of Socotra are the three smaller islands, Darsa, Samha and Abd al Kuri.  There is something very revealing by looking at a country like Yemen from the point of view of one its most obscure corners.  I would certainly love to visit Socotra, as well as mainland Yemen, when the political situation calms down. It sounds like an incredibly exciting destination, with a lot to offer the curious traveller!



Image credits:

All images accompanying this blog post were taken from Stefan Geen's photostream on Flickr.  Stefan visited Socotra in 2006, when he was living in Beijing, China.  By an interesting quirk of fate, Stefan has also taken lots of photos from Kashgar in Xinjiang/Uyghuristan, which is a place I've also blogged about.  I didn't come across his photos, when I was blogging about Xinjiang/Uyghuristan, but it's well worth having a look at his Chinese photos as well. He's got a very interesting website where you can find out more. 

Thanks Stefan for sharing these wonderful images with us using the Creative Commons License.

 
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