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An endemic language and rich oral tradition

Native culture intrinsically linked to surrounding nature

Wealth of tangible and intangible cultural heritage

Dive deeper into Socotri culture


Socotra is home to an ethnically diverse human population and a mosaic culture composed of ancient indigenous traditions and foreign influence brought to Socotra by the multitude of travelers that have visited the archipelago throughout history. Some of the cultural elements that render Socotra so unique include an endemic language spoken nowhere else and a myriad of unique, enduring cultural practices within the realms of tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

Inhabitants of Socotra

The archipelago’s current human population is a patchwork of indigenous and foreign lineages, and mixtures of both, all of which live in relative harmony. Indigenous Socotris are the ethnic group that has inhabited the island the longest and are largely part of the Al-Mahra tribe of south Arabia. The remaining population is composed principally of people of East-African descent and an increasing number of mainland Yemenis. Historically Socotra’s inhabitants were geographically and culturally divided into two groups: those who lived in the mountains, subsisting primarily on livestock and those who lived on the coastal plains, subsisting primarily on fish. The dichotomy also reflected geographical divisions; the prior group belonged to kin-based tribal groups that owned land and had access to specific land and water resources while the latter did not (Morris, 2002).


To date, the majority of indigenous Socotris still live as semi-nomadic pastoralists and depend on animal husbandry, fishing, date agriculture and other practices tied to their surrounding nature as livelihoods. Until recently, the diet of most Socotris consisted of meat, milk products, fish, dates and the few other edible plants found on the archipelago. Due to the largely arid climate and lack of irrigation infrastructure, large scale agriculture was, and still is, not an option, though subsistence agriculture is practiced in quaint home gardens throughout Socotra island. As a result of these nutritional limitations, livestock on Socotra (goats, sheep, camels, miniature cattle), and especially goats, occupy an important place in local culture and attributed with much respect and reverence.

"Leave my longing to God

There in the heights, purple-green

Where love tops the peaks

And flies through the air as a rapid swimmer

Leave him outside overnight

High up in the mountain peaks

As long as it is unknown

Stranger not to blame

For he who is undead will now return

The island now must return

He will meet and meet again

Patient throughout all of life

My presence there is constant giving

In the heights, purple-green

I saw by eye the waterfalls

With their blessed shimmering streams"

-Translated Socotri poem by Ali Abdullah de Tator

Socotri Language

Socotri is a South Semitic language with no written form, and one of six languages that compose the linguistic family known as the Modern South Arabian Languages (MSAL), alongside Hobyot, Mehri, Shihri, Bathari and Harsusi. All of the MSAL are natively spoken in what are now areas of Yemen and Oman. It is estimated that around 70,000 people worldwide are native speakers of Socotri, making it the second most widely spoken of the MSAL  after Mehri (Ethnologue). Despite this, along with the rest of the MSAL, Socotri is increasingly at risk of extinction due to exclusion by Arabic, largely thanks to Arabic’s link with the rapidly advancing globalization of Socotra and the fact that all schools in Socotra operate exclusively in Arabic. Today, Socotri is still the main language used among non-urban communities throughout the archipelago and among the majority of older inhabitants. With that said, it is an increasingly common occurrence to hear Arabic words and phrases interspersed within Socotri dialogue, and to meet younger Socotris with a tenuous knowledge of their native language.

Intangible cultural heritage​

Perhaps the richest and most diverse of Socotri expressions of cultural identity lie in the archipelago’s intangible cultural heritage. Intangible cultural heritage is defined by UNESCO as “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.” Elements of Socotra’s intangible cultural heritage include the archipelago’s vivid traditions of ethnobotany, poetry, dance and many others. In addition to these more apparent elements, Socotri intangible cultural heritage is also composed by a deeply engrained system of complex traditional rules relating to social subjects, as well as the conservation and management of natural resources. These rules and customs have withstood the test of time and it is principally due to these rules along with the stewardship of Socotra’s inhabitant that Socotri flora and fauna have been able to flourish for millennia, while also permitting the archipelago’s human inhabitants to benefit from this biodiversity.

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Tangible cultural heritage

Tangible cultural heritage is defined by the European Union as “physical artefacts produced, maintained and transmitted intergenerationally in a society.” In Socotra, tangible cultural heritage takes the form of a variety of handicrafts produced using natural resources readily found in Socotra, and architectural styles used on the archipelago. The main forms of handicraft produced in Socotra are clayware, goat-wool weaving, palm leave weaving and leatherwork, with a variety of utilitarian and artistic products made in each. While nothing natural can be taken off the island, Socotri handicrafts make for beautiful, authentic and unique forms of art that can be taken off the island and brought abroad. In addition, by providing patronage to the few people left authentically practicing it, travelers can contribute to the preservation and continuation of Socotri handicraft tradition.

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Clay bird figurine colored with Dragon blood resin

Literature cited:

1. Morris, Miranda. 2002. Manual of Traditional Land Use in the Soqotrian Archipelago, for G.E.F. (Global Environmental Facility). Project YEM/96/G32. Edinburgh: Royal Botanical Gardens.

2. 2021. Soqotri: A language of Yemen. Ethnologue: Languages of the world.

instances of socotri culture

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