Socotra is one of the most isolated bits of land on Earth, being of continental landmass origin (i.e., not of volcanic origin). The island probably detached from Africa as a fault block, in the same set of rifting events that have opened the Gulf of Aden to its west.
There was initially an Oldoway (or Oldowan) culture in Socotra. Oldoway stone tools were found in the area around Hadibo by V.A. Zhukov, a member of the Russian Complex Expedition in 2008. Recently, Yemen Times reported that an archeological site, found in the Foahr Sha’awb District on the island, dates back to the pre-Islamic period. After initially discovering the building, the Russian-Yemenite team went on to find a whole compound consisting of square and circular buildings separated from one another by lanes. Within the compoundو the archaeologists found ancient carvings bearing the south-Arabian alphabet, as well as a cluster of letters that could be names of former rulers and kings.
Positioned near the southern gateway to the Red Sea, Socotra has been famous since ancient times: Frankincense, myrrh, dragon’s blood and aloe were valuable commodities that were traded widely and made Socotra a destination for fleets from many parts of the known world. Socotra was the world’s foremost supplier of these rare and expensive resins.
There are numerous drawings of feet scattered across a sufficiently large area of land (petroglyphs in Eriosh). So it should seem ancient Socotrans decided to leave their trace in the history. It is symbolical that some drawing depict feet going in various directions.
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.
Socotra appears as Dioskouridou (“of Dioscurides”) in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, a 1st century AD 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 (historical Indo-Aryan language and the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism) dvipa sukhadhara (“island of bliss”). A recent discovery of texts in several languages, including a wooden tablet in Palmyrene dated to the 3rd century AD, indicate the diverse origins of those who used Socotra as a trading base in antiquity.
A local tradition holds that the inhabitants were converted to Christianity by Thomas the Apostle in AD 52. In the 10th century, the Arab geographer Abu Muhammad al-Hasan al-Hamdani stated that in his time most of the inhabitants were Christians.
It is also mentioned in The Travels of Marco Polo, according to which “the inhabitants are baptised Christians and have an ‘archbishop’” who, it is further explained, “has nothing to do with the Pope in Rome, but is subject to an archbishop who lives at Baghdad”. They were Nestorians but also practised ancient magic rituals despite the warnings of their archbishop.
In 1507, a fleet commanded by Tristào da Cunha (a Portuguese explorer and naval commander) with Alfonso de Albunquerque (a Portuguese fidalgo, or nobleman, an admiral whose military and administrative activities as second governor of Portuguese India conquered and established the Portuguese colonial empire in the Indian Ocean) landed an occupying force at the then capital of Suq. Their objective was a Portugaese base to stop Arab commerce from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and to liberate the presumed friendly Christians from Islamic rule. Here they started to build a fortress. However, they were not welcomed as enthusiastically as they had expected and abandoned the island four years later, as it was not advantageous as a base.
The island was also come across by Somali sailors and passed under the control of the Mahrah sultans in 1511.
The next colonial power to conquer the island was the British who stationed a garrison here in 1834 to protect the island as a potential coaling station for India-bound traders. Unfortunately, the annual monsoon and the lack of a good harbor made Socotra unsuitable for this purpose. The P&O (Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, a British shipping and logistics company) ship Adensank after being wrecked on a reef near Socotra, in 1897, with the loss of 78 lives. The British left in 1839 when they decided that Aden would be a more useful conquest. The British, while based in Aden, signed a treaty with the Sultan of Socotra in 1876 and maintained diplomatic relations and protectorate status (proctectorate along with the remainder of the Mahra State of Qishn and Socotra) over the island for most of the next 100 years. In 1939 they built an RAF airfield at Mori, site of the present airport, which they occupied throughout World War II.
British involvement on Socotra formally ended in 1967 when the Mahra sultanate was abolished and on November 30th, the South Yemen (People’s Republic of South Yemen, later People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen also referred to as Democratic Yemen or Yemen — was a socialist republic in the present-day southern and eastern Provinces of Yemen) gained full independence following 128 years of colonial rule. For the next three decades Socotra remained a forgotten backwater although it received considerable attention from the Soviet Union, which maintained a strong presence in the Marxist people’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Rumors of a Soviet Naval base on the island during this era are probably unfounded although evidence of a Soviet presence on Socotra can be found to the present day.
Today Socotra is part of the Republic of Yemen, for a long time was included in the Adan Governorate, but in 2004 it became attached to the Hadhramaut Governorate, which is in much greater proximity to the island than ‘Adan (although the nearest governorate is Al Mahrah.
The Law No. 31 for 2013 established the governorate No. 22 of the Socotra archipelago with Hadibo as its capital city.
The governorate is divided administratively into two districts: 1- Hadibo and 2- Qlansiah and Abdel-Kori.
The Article (2) of the Law stipulates that the governorate consists of islands and rocks. The islands are Socotra, Darsa, Abdel-Kori, Sial Abdel-Kori, Samha and Sial Socotra. The rocks are Sira, Radad, Adlah, Karshah, Sihar, Thaen Thatal and Jals.