The inhabitants of Socotra have no written history. What is known of the islands is gathered from references dispersed in records of those who have visited the islands, including works in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, Danish and Arabic.
Map of the Socotra archipelago The first mention of Socotra in record is the colonization of the island by the Greeks at the time of Alexander the Great when he was contemplating the invasion of India, about 330 B.C.E. It is said that it was Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle, who peaked interest in Socotra by referring to the availability of myrrh, which was widely used at the time for medicinal purposes. Those sent to colonize the island were handpicked by Aristotle and came from his native town. It is recorded that, “They overcame the Indians who were there and took hold of the island”.
First-century B.C.E. accounts (Diodorus of Sicily) report that Socotra kept the entire world provided with myrrh, ladanum, and other aromatic plants. The island’s aloes, was from very early times an important article of commerce, and was produced almost entirely on Socotra.” The island’s central location within the sea-born trade routes of the Indian Ocean secured its importance as a trading post. “The shores of the Arabian Gulf produced an ever-rising value of frankincense and myrrh; while the cloths and precious stones, the timbers and spices—particularly cinnamon—brought from India largely by Indian vessels, were redistributed at Socotra or Guardafui [Somalia], and carried to the Nile and the Mediterranean.
The Greek community converted to Christianity when it became the adopted religion of the Greco-Roman world. A local tradition holds that the inhabitants were converted to Christianity by Thomas the Apostle in 52 C.E. In the tenth century the Arab geographer Abu Mohammed Al-Hassan Al-Hamdani stated that in his time most of the inhabitants were Christians. Socotra is also mentioned in The Travels of Marco Polo, according to which “the inhabitants are baptized Christians and have an archbishop” who, it is further explained, “has nothing to do with the Pope at Rome, but is subject to an archbishop who lives at Baghdad.” They were Nestorians who also practiced ancient magic rituals despite the warnings of their archbishop. One of the motivating factors of the many trade excursions during the sixteenth-century, and late-nineteenth-century scientific expeditions was partly the search for “the survival of vestigial Christianity among its people” and the remains of its physical evidence on Socotra’s landscape, such as churches.
In 1507, Portugal landed an occupying force at the then capital of Suq, to “liberate” the assumed friendly Christians from Arab Islamic rule. However they were not welcomed as enthusiastically as they had expected and abandoned the island four years later. The islands passed under the control of the Mahra sultans in 1511. In 1600, England’s Queen Elizabeth granted a monopoly to the East India Company to trade beyond Africa, bringing the British into the Indian Ocean. It was in the early 1800s that they engaged Socotra, finally making it a British protectorate in 1876, along with the remainder of the Mahra State of Qishn and Socotra. It was under the British that extractive industries and the development of commercial agriculture occurred. This era’s expanding global marketplace brought with it an interest in the systematic classification of all the world’s flora and fauna.
While the motivating factor may have been commercial, Socotra soon garnered the interests of botanists and scientists for its unique endemic species and unpolluted environment. In October 1967 the Mahra sultanate was abolished and the British granted independence to South Yemen. The following month, on November 30, Socotra became part of the People’s Republic of South Yemen. Within three years, the country became known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. The new republic adopted Marxism, the first Marxist state in the Arab world. This heightened tensions in the region during the Cold War, and Socotra was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1979, at which time the island was converted into a military base. It was later discovered that there was no major military investment made to Socotra’s landscape; only cosmetic camouflage designed by the Soviets to protect their area.