Why Is Socotra Known as the Most Alien-looking Place on Earth?
Socotra, also called Soqotra is an island located between the Socotra Passage and the Arabian Sea; it is the largest of four islands of the Socotra archipelago found off the easternmost part of the Horn of Africa, about 155 miles northeast of the African country of Somalia and about 240 miles southeast of the Asian country of Yemen, and it’s unlike any other place on Earth.
The territory is located near major shipping routes and is officially part of Yemen, and had long been a subdivision of the Aden Governorate. In 2004, it became attached to the Hadhramaut Governorate, which is much closer to the island than Aden (although the nearest governorate was the Al Mahrah Governorate). In 2013, the archipelago became its own governorate, the Socotra Governorate.
The island of Socotra constitutes around 95% of the landmass of the Socotra archipelago, and it is very isolated, home to a high number of endemic species; up to a third of its plant life is endemic. 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.
What would you expect a tropical island in the Arabian Sea to look like? Beautiful, sandy beaches and palm trees might come to mind. However, the landscape of Socotra usually brings one word to mind: bizarre.
Yes, there are sandy beaches, but Socotra’s 1,400 square miles also contain towering mountains, deep valleys, limestone caves, and barren desert plains with large sand dunes. Overall, its hot, dry climate creates a harsh environment with a unique mix of endemic plants and animals unlike anywhere else on the planet.
Over one-third of Socotra’s 825 plant species can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Some of the plant species Socotra is famous for include the rare dragon’s blood tree, as well as myrrh and frankincense. Those last two might sound familiar if you’ve ever heard the biblical story of Jesus’ birth and the gifts wise men from the east brought to him.
The islands also feature reptiles and land snails, most of which can only be found on Socotra. You’ll also find a wide variety of land and sea birds, as well as diverse marine life. You won’t find, however, any native amphibians, and there’s only one native mammal: the bat.
This diversity of plant and animal life, along with Socotra’s natural beauty, led UNESCO to designate Socotra a World Heritage Site in 2008. Its remoteness keeps it from becoming a popular tourist destination, though.
In fact, Socotra didn’t even have basic roads until a few years ago. Most of its tribal Bedouin population (some estimates put the population of the islands at around 40,000) make a living herding goats, fishing, pearl diving, and raising some crops, such as dates.
Much of Socotra’s history remains a mystery. The official language of Socotra is Arabic because it’s a part of Yemen, but most people speak an unwritten Socotri language that dates back to pre-Islamic times. Archeological teams have recently discovered the ruins of a city on Socotra that dates back to the 2nd century A.D. Some local legends also hold that Socotra is the location of the original Garden of Eden from the Bible.