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Strangest Places on Earth #3: Socotra

The island was recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a world natural heritage site in July 2008.

Strangest Places on Earth #3: Socotra

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Socotra, also spelled Soqotra, is a small archipelago of four islands in the Indian Ocean. The largest island, also called Socotra, is about 95% of the landmass of the archipelago. It lies some 240 kilometres (150 mi) east of the Horn of Africa and 380 kilometres (240 mi) south of the Arabian Peninsula. The island is very isolated and through the theory of speciation, a third of its plant life is found nowhere else on the planet. It has been described as the most alien-looking place on Earth. The island measures 132 kilometres (82 mi) in length and 49.7 kilometres (30.9 mi) in width. Socotra is part of the Republic of Yemen.

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In the notes to his translation of the Periplus, G.W.B. Huntingford remarks that the name Suqotra is not Greek in origin, but from the Sanskrit dvīpa(Skt. “island”) sukhadhara (“supporting, or providing bliss”).Another probable origin of the name is the Arabic “Suq” meaning “market” and “qotra” meaning “dripping frankincense”.

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.

Socotra appears as Dioskouridou (“of Dioscurides”) in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a 1st-century AD Greek navigation aid. 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.

In 2001 a group of Belgian speleologists of the Socotra Karst Project made a spectacular discovery. Deep inside a huge cave on the island Socotra they came across a large number of inscriptions, drawings and archaeological objects. As further investigation showed, they were left by sailors who visited the island between the 1st century BC and the 6th century AD. The majority of the texts is written in the Indian Brāhmī script, but there are also inscriptions in South-Arabian, Ethiopian, Greek, Palmyrene and Bactrian scripts and languages. This corpus of nearly 250 texts and drawings thus constitutes one of the main sources for the investigation of Indian Ocean trade networks in the first centuries of our era.

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Socotra is considered the jewel of biodiversity in the Arabian Sea. In the 1990s, a team of United Nations biologists conducted a survey of the archipelago’s flora and fauna. They counted nearly 700 endemic species, found nowhere else on earth; only Hawaii, New Caledonia, and the Galapagos Islands have more impressive numbers.

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The long geological isolation of the Socotra archipelago and its fierce heat and drought have combined to create a unique and spectacular endemic flora. Botanical field surveys led by the Centre for Middle Eastern Plants (part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh) indicate that 307 out of the 825 (37%) plant species on Socotra are endemic, i.e., they are found nowhere else on Earth. The entire flora of the Socotra Archipelago has been assessed for the IUCN Red List, with 3 Critically Endangered and 27 Endangered plant species recognised in 2004.

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One of the most striking of Socotra’s plants is the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), which is a strange-looking, umbrella-shaped tree. Its red sap was thought to be the dragon’s blood of the ancients, sought after as a dye, and today used as paint and varnish. Also important in ancient times were Socotra’s various endemic aloes, used medicinally, and for cosmetics. Other endemic plants include the giant succulent tree Dorstenia gigas, the cucumber tree Dendrosicyos socotranus, the rare Socotran pomegranate (Punica protopunica),Aloe perryi, and Boswellia socotrana.

So nature lovers and wildlife junkies, take note !!

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