Socotra – The Most Alien-Looking Place on the Planet


Socotra is the ‘forgotten island’ of a small archipelago in the Indian Ocean, found between Somalia to the west and Yemen to the north. Socotra translates to ‘island of bliss’ in ancient Sanskrit, but it’s also known as the’most alien looking place on Earth’ due to its diverse endemic species, which make the island look more like an imaginary planet than a part of the Middle East.


The island’s precise history is debatable, as it has been visited and occupied by numerous people over the last few thousand years. A group of Belgian speleologists discovered cave inscriptions in 2001 that were mostly in Indian Brhm script, but also in South Arabian, Ethiopian, Greek, Palmyrene, and Bactrian scripts and languages from the first century BCE. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks are said to have sailed to the island in search of frankincense and aloe, as well as the famous dragon’s blood tree.


Socotra is mentioned in Marco Polo’s Travels, but it is believed that he never visited the island. He mentions that the inhabitants were Nestorians, but that they were converted to Christianity at some point, possibly by Thomas the Apostle in 53 AD, through a mission. The Mahra Sultans ruled the island since around 1500, until 1876, when the reigning sultan pledged allegiance to the British crown in exchange for monetary benefits. Finally, in 1967, as the sultanate was abolished, Socotra seceded from Britain and became part of South Yemen – later Yemen with the country’s unification in 1990. Throughout Socotra’s history of occupation and ownership, many components of the island have not changed such as the magnificent spectacles and mysteries of the island’s natural characteristics.


The island attracts ecotourists, scientists, and even professional paragliders, but the locals have lived there for generations as nomadic pastoralists in towns and tribes. Hadibo, the island’s capital, serves as a commercial hub, and supplies are delivered by boat from the Yemen mainland. Travelers can disembark from a plane that departs from Yemen’s Aden airport once per day. Their markets are reminiscent of ancient times, as the people sell and live off of the island’s resources, which include goats, honey, and fish. Unfortunately, the village is impoverished, but the island is stunning.

to match feature yemen socotra

Socotra is known as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean because its flora and fauna adapted to the island’s harshly hot and windy environment through a similar evolutionary process. This means that of the 800 plant and animal species, one-third of them can only be found on Socotra. The dragon’s blood tree is the most well-known plant, and it can be found clinging to the cliffs of the desert plateau on the highlands. To hold water on Socotra’s desert plateau, the desert rose, also known as the bottle tree, has a swollen and bulbous stem. Socotra’s massive caves beneath the plateau are filled with thousands of ancient stalactites and stalagmites between the turquoise waters and the dry highlands.


Along with the natural beauty of the island, the coral reefs that grow in the shallow waters around it support even more biodiversity and endemic sea creatures. Local fishermen use these waters to catch their daily catch, but they must always be wary of reef sharks and Somalian pirates who stop in Socotra for food and fuel. Local dolphins that swim in the wake of the fishermen’s boats provide comfort because, according to local legend, they represent good luck.

socotra city
socotra city1

The local government is currently struggling with habitat preservation for the island’s unique plant and animal life, as climate change and unsustainable cattle farming threaten Socotra’s natural balance. Mineral harvesters also illegally deplete coral stone and limestone reserves. Protecting valuable land and regulating future development are steps being taken to address threats to the island’s pristine nature.


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