Jeremy Farrell ARAB 250, Spring 2011 Final Paper Constructions of Aboriginal Suquṭrā
Autochthonous or indigenous communities - especially those outside of Oceania - have

enjoyed increased academic exposure over the last 50 years1, though the curiosity stirred by impressions of and reports about such communities has been observed from the beginning of literature’s inquiry into our human existence. To investigate the origins of an aboriginal culture is, in no small way, an attempt to illuminate the origins of all humanity, in that whatever conclusions are reached as a result are part of the larger teleology describing the arc of human existence: a glimpse of the Garden of Eden, if only in some small way.2
A special case from amongst the groups brought forward in this global uptick in

aboriginal studies was the inhabitants of a series of three small islands, belonging geologically to the African landmass but politically part of what is now the Yemen: ʿAbd al-Kurī, Samḥā, and the main island of Suquṭrā. Suquṭrā is the main population center - the other two islands’ combined population does not exceed 300 3 - and was well known from ancient times by the likes of Herodotus, Pliny, traders and Egyptian Christian missionaries through the 6th century


For examples in this surge of interest, see: Canadian Journal of Native Studies, ed. Lorraine Mayer. Brandon, MB: Brandon University Dept. of Native Studies; Australian Aboriginal Studies, ed. Cressida Fforde. Aboriginal Studies Press, vols. i-xl (1961-2011); American Indian Quarterly, ed. Amanda J. Cobb. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, vols. 1-26 (1975-2011); Indilinga: African Journal of Indigenous Knowledge Systems, ed. Queeneth Mkabela. University of Zululand (RSA), vols. 1-10 (2001-2011).

Serge Elie. “South Arabia’s Strategic Gateway and Symbolic Playground,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 33 (2) June 2006, pp. 131-160.

Oman, G.; Simeone-Senelle, M.-Cl. "Suḳuṭra." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. University of California Los Angeles. 30 June 2011 <http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_COM-1110>. The same number is also given in Senelle, “The Modern South Arabian Languages,” The Semitic Languages, ed. R. Hertzon. London: Routledge (1997), p. 379.


CE in main due to the flourishing frankincense trade being conducted across the Hellenized world.4 The ancient sources’ descriptions of the islands’ population, when given, identify a number of different ethnic elements amongst the Suquṭrans, most notably an Indian community and a Greek-speaking contingent.5 The explanation for these strange demographic conditions was assumed to be economic - the Greeks coming for frankincense and myrrh, and the Indians bearing “rice... Indian cotton, slave girls, and receiving turtles.” 6 The written record strongly and unequivocally attests to a a mixed population from its inception, and modern scholarship has reached the conclusion that there was at least one other, Arab-aboriginal group which instilled their unique demographic and linguistic features into the islands:

“Until now, the Bedouin of Socotra have been among the most isolated and least known people in the world,” Botting [author of Island of the Dragon’s Blood; see below, p. 24] writes, engrossed by the idea that they might be the descendants of the “original inhabitants of Arabia.” 7

This paper was conceived with the purpose of examining the reports of Soqoṭra’s

aboriginal population and its origin from the period succeeding the Hellenistic record, beginning in the 9th century CE with the contributions of Arab geographers and ending in the modern day. It will draw on papers from the fields of anthropology and ethnology, genetics, linguistics and history in order to form as complete a picture as possible of the scholarly conception of Suquṭran


J. Tkatsch. “Skoṭrā” E.J. Brill’s First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936, ed. M.Th. Houtsma ... [et al.]. Leiden ; New York: E.J. Brill (1987), 9 vols. + supplements. c.f. vol. IV, pp. 476-480. For a discussion of the frankincense trade, see: Nigel Groom. Frankincense and myrrh : A Study of the Arabian Incense Trade. London; New York: Longman (1981).

Anonymous. The commerce and navigation of the Erythraean Sea, ed. John Watson with historical introductions, commentary, critical notes, and indexes McCrindle. Amsterdam: Philo Press (1973), § 30-31. See also, Agatharchides, Diodoros, iii, 47.

Tkatsch, “Sokoṭrā”, op. cit. p. 477.


Nathalie Peutz. “Shall I Tell You What Suquṭrā Once Was?”, translated from : “Voulez-vous que je vous raconte la Socotra d’autrefois?”: Patrimoine mondial et nostalgie souveraine dans l’archipel de Socotra au Yémen Paru dans Transcontinentales, June 10, 2011. Accessed 30 June, 2011 from http://transcontinentales.revues.org/ 1135#quotation.


aboriginality and its evolution. What is more important than this survey, however, is the underlying question of how the “aboriginal” Suquṭran community were represented at any specific time, and what opportunities for access and secondary influences contributed to the author’s explanations for the roots of the Suquṭrāns . It is contended that despite the advancements in the last decade the study of Suquṭran aboriginality has not led to further development in understanding the island’s autochthonous community, but rather continues to be approached by way of the specifications of an inferior methodology which has failed both in formulating pertinent questions aimed at developing historical ethnographic and historical realities on Suquṭrā, and at taking into account and making use of the increased study of aboriginality as a whole.

Constructing Aborigines
The most important subset of aboriginal studies which developed during this rise of

aboriginal theory was the study of the interaction between aboriginal communities and colonial powers 8, and the taxonomic system that developed as a result. Amongst the most perscipacious of these surveys was that undertaken by Sumit Guha concerning the formation of the British colonial consciousness regarding aboriginal communities in the highlands of northern India.9 In it, he argues persuasively that the way in which aboriginal people were perceived was consciously conditioned by racial attitudes which viewed native peoples as “unprogressive


Some important early works include: Frank Stevens. Racism: the Australian experience - Colonialism. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co. (1972); Jeremy Beckett. “The Torres Strait Islanders and the Pearling Industry: A Case of Internal Colonialism,” Aboriginal History, Vol. 1, 1977: 77-104; A. R. Welch.“Aboriginal Education as Internal Colonialism: the schooling of an indigenous minority in Australia,” Comparative Education, Volume 24, Issue 2, 1988.

Guha. “Lower Strata, Older Races, and Aboriginal Peoples: Racial Anthropology and Mythical History Past and Present,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 57, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 423-441.


people, [who] did not change - they merely accumulated, with the latest addition to the population overlaying its predecessor, much as geological strata did”;10 or, less charitably as, “the remains of nationalities subdued and long grievously oppressed and abhorred by those who have been their conquerors.” 11 Professional English ethnographers such as Charles Grant who were sent to the Indian hinterlands to evaluate the demography describe the great natural fastness in which those aboriginal people lived as the key to understanding theories of human development “uncomplicated by the processes of ‘metissage’ and ‘miscegination’ that obscured the picture” in other, more developed parts of the world under the auspices of more developed civilizations.12
For Guha the environment to which these people retreated reflected anthropologists’s

attempt to embody the primitive conditions of those primitive humans as well as their emphasis on the “backwardness” of the area they inhabited: notably forests, but also other wild terrains such as hills, mountains, and caves. 13 The legends which had accrued surrounding these aboriginal populations’ flight to these remote areas proved irresistible to state anthropologists:

“Such legends were grist to the mill of the speculative Victorian ethnographer-historians like C.A. Elliot who read them naively as depictions of the past instead of as claims in the present. The relatively small number of the alleged autochthones fitted well with the widespread Western belief that such “lower races” were fated to die out in the presence of superior specimens of mankind (Lyell 1853, 700).” 14

Guha compares his portrayal of Indian aboriginals and the processes of externally defined

and enforced “ancient aboriginalism” with reference to the San people of the Kalahari commonly though to have been Neolithic survivors, verifiable echoes of the past - whose

Ibid., p. 423. Ibid., pp. 424-5.



Charles Grant. The Gazeteer of the Central Provinces of India. Society Presses of Bombay (1870), p. xiv; c.f. Guha, op. cit., p. 424.

Guha, p. 427. Guha, op. cit., p. 430.



vestigial isolation Edwin Wilmsen15 has demonstrated to be a creation of local and colonial forces which, “immediately preced[ed the] collapse of trading networks exporting ivory, ostrich feathers, and other commodities to the Western market.” 16 Guha ends with a question: Could it be that India was an exception to historical processes of characterizing aborigines, or does it fall into a larger, discernible pattern?
While a complete reassessment of the outcomes of studies concerning aboriginal peoples

on Suquṭrā is beyond the scope of this paper, it is constructive to consider the previous academic literature in light of these questions and frameworks provided by Guha. In what follows, we will attempt to show where previous scholars of Suquṭrā have fallen into the mode of discourse outlined by Guha, particularly as it pertains to characterizations of aboriginal people as “lower”; identification of aboriginal people with primitive environments such as mountains and caves, and isolation in general; and legendary accounts of population movement and replacement, and to contextualize the results of such characterizations on both the historical portrayal of Suquṭrā’s aborigines.

Constructing Suquṭrā: Ethnographic, Linguistic and Historical Categories
What follows is an attempt to lay out the record as it reflects the interest in Soqoṭra’s

population in general and, specifically, constructions of an aboriginal community. Ancient sources - for our purposes, almost entirely Greek or epigraphical, and dating from before the 9th century CE - referred to can be found in EI1 “Suḳuṭrā”, op. cit. Each section will trace historical trends and developments in the consciousness and portrayal of aboriginal Suquṭrans, with the

Edwin Wilmsen. We Are Here: Politics of Aboriginal Land Tenure. Berkeley: University of California Press (1989).

Guha, op. cit., p. 434.


aim of generating a set of methodological themes and shared vocabularies used to evaluate aboriginal Suquṭran civilization, to be referenced against later works concerned with Soqotran aboriginal demographics. Arabic Geographers (9th-15th cent. CE)
When considering the ways in which pre-modern authors have understood the

demographics of Suquṭrā, fruitful attention could be paid to the wider geographical and societal context into which the authors placed the island. No books dedicated solely to the island were penned prior to the modern period; accordingly, it is must be noted that previous to the 16th century CE the island was conceived by geographers writing in Arabic - not simply Arabs who happened to be geographers 17 - as only a very small part of a more integrated whole, be it a Hellenistic colony, South Arabia, the Horn of Africa or a farther extension of the Zanj, an extension of the Red Sea, or the Indian Ocean. The differences between our familiar assumptions of modern boundaries and expectations of regional or continental affiliation and the less spatially delineated geography of pre-modern authors should here be placed at a premium. The premodern author’s identification of a location would encompass the issue of contiguity to a second location in addition to perceived continuity of ethnicity or descent with surrounding social actors or observable, “natural” relations with the outside world.18 Thus our authors’ choice of where to frame the geographical context of Suquṭrā - South Arabia, the Indian Ocean, Africa etc. - may help us understand contemporary assumptions of ethnic realities as relates to Suquṭrā’s


This is an important distinction illuminated by Chase Robinson in his book, Islamic Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2003), p. xx.

For the philosophy concerning social actors and changing conceptions of “natural relations”, see: Ulrich Beck. The Brave New World of Work. London: Polity, Malden, Mass (2000), pp. 164-170.


population. It is from this perspective that this paper will treat the accounts of the pre-modern authors.
The first of the geographers to write about Suquṭrā was the 10th century scholar,

antiquarian and genealogist al-Hamdānī (d. 335-6/947).19 His interest in historical genealogy is well attested, and his contemporary reputation was based in main upon his composition of alIklīl20, the eighth book of which was a compendium of the human and monumental history of the Arabian peninsula, Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArab.21 al-Hamdānī was a native of the Yemen who had also spent appreciable periods of time in Mekkah and Baghdād, with spent the greater part of his life in Raydah (22.4 miles NNW of Sanʿāʾ) where he composed his works under the patronage of the provincial elite Abū Jaʿfar Ḍaḥḥāk.
al-Hamdānī couches his description of Suquṭrā in very broad geographical terms and very

precise ethnic considerations. The spatial element of Suquṭrā’s place within the book connects it to the coasts of the Yemen, ʿUmān, the lands of Barbarā and the Zanj. The described trade network and meticulously outlined travel markers between these areas allow us to locate a general area of contiguity in which al-Hamdānī felt comfortable placing his characterization of the island. While Suquṭrā and other surrounding islands (Fursān and Zaylaʿ) are described as “in

See: Löfgren, O. "al-Hamdānī, Abū Muḥammad al-Ḥasan b. Aḥmad b. Yaʿḳūb b. Yūsuf b. Dāwūd b. Sulaymān Ḏh̲i 'l-Dumayna al-Bakīlī al-Arḥabī, often named Ibn Ḏh̲i/Abi 'l-Dumayna or Ibn al-Ḥāʾik." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. University of California Los Angeles. 14 June 2011 <http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/ entry?entry=islam_SIM-2666>; Yūsuf Muḥammad ʻAbd Allāh. al-Hamdānī Lisān al-Yaman : dirāsāt fī dhikrāhu al-alfīyah. Ṣanʻāʾ: Jāmiʻat Ṣanʻāʾ (1986).
20 Al-Ḥasan

ibn Aḥmad ibn Yaʻqūb ibn al-Hāʼik al-Hamdānī. al-Iklīl, al-juzʼ al-thāmin : yataḍammanu maḥāfid alYaman wa-masānidahā wa-dafāʼinahā wa-quṣūrahā wa-marāthī ḥamīr wa-al-qubūrīyāt, akhrjahu ilá al-ṭabʻ waṣaḥḥaḥa al-aghlāṭ-- wa-ʻallaqa ḥawāshīhi al-lughawīyah al-Āb Anistās Mārī al-Karmilī al-Baghdādī. Baghdād: Maṭbaʻat al-Suryān al-Kāthūlīkīyah (1931).
21 Al-Ḥasan

ibn Aḥmad ibn Yaʻqūb ibn al-Hāʼik al- Hamdānī. Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʻArab, ed. Ibrāhīm Khūrī. Beirut: Dār al-Mashriq (1993).


proximity to the coasts of the Yemen”, those engaged in trade are Ḥabash.22 However, those African elements are not drawn to the island due to population affinity but commercial interest. While Suquṭrā itself is described as a Nubian (barbarā) island, al-Hamdānī portrays its main function as a way station between ʿAdan and the balad al-Zanj - a classical delineation that encompassed what is today southern Somalia to the south end of Tanzania.23 The contemporary population of the island consisted of 10,000 Christian “fighting men” (muqātil) of the Mahrah tribe. The true origin of the population, however, lay in somewhere in the past: al-Hamdānī relates that the Suquṭrī Mahrah understood the origins of the island’s population as a detachment of Byzantines (qawm al-Rūm) who were sent to the island by Kisrā; it is difficult to determine whether this is meant to indicate one of the Sāsānid rulers Kisrā Anūshirwān (531-79 CE) or Kisrā Aparwīz (591-628 CE) who may have exiled a community of Greeks to the island, or if it is a corruption of the Greek title Καισαρ. This detachment came into contact with the Mahrah, and eventually became absorbed into the existing population: “some lived amongst them and became Christians with them” (fa-sākanūhum wa-tanaṣṣara maʿhum baʿḍuhum). al-Hamdānī also presents a competing tradition, known from the people of ʿAdan, who deny that any Rūm ever entered the island saying, rather, that it was inhabited by a monastic community (rahābinah), which subsequently died out, to be replaced by the tribes of Mahrah and al-Shurrāh, the latter becoming the more numerous over time. When Islam came to the island (ẓaharat fī-hā


For an understanding of the implications of this term, see: Ullendorff, E.; Trimingham, J.S.; Beckingham, C.F.; Watt, W. Montgomery; Ed(s). "Ḥabash, Ḥabasha." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. University of California Los Angeles. 27 May 2011 <http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_COM-0247>

an understanding of the implications of this term, see: Becker, C.H. "Baḥr al-Zandj." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. University of California Los Angeles. 27 May 2011 <http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry? entry=islam_SIM-1066>


daʿwat al-islām), it prospered but was ruthlessly suppressed by the non-Muslim Shurrāh who killed all but 10 of the Muslims, a community which retained a physical presence solely by means of a masjid at a location known as al-Sūq.
al-Hamdānī describes a very diverse contemporary population dynamic, but explains the

settling of the island with imagery of initial habitation and successive demographic replacements presented either in terms of physical populations or cultural expression. The island is first described as barbarā, but no further mention of African character is given. Despite this, strong trade contacts persisted between Suquṭrā and the African mainland, but the account as it is presented is too weak to substantiate a claim that the reference to Suquṭrā as barbarā is meant to cast the island’s original population as African in nature. Instead, the mechanism of “populating” is presented as ordered on behalf of previously civilized locales, e.g. the Rūm or South Arabian tribes that was, in essence, a colonial enterprise. It is instructive of al-Hamdānī’s view that Suquṭrā, at the crossroads of the immensely diverse western Indian Ocean economic sphere, was “caused” to be inhabited by order of a foreign king and that all subsequent changes to the demographic realities are likewise presented as “foreign”, either in part or in full. The first can be demonstrated in al-Hamdānī’s characterization of the “original” population as exerting enough cultural vitality to resist the totalizing effects of the “invading” cultural force - either in the form of Mahrah succeeding in preserving themselves by intermarrying with the arriving Rūm, or the non-Muslim Sharruāh elements killing off the Muslim converts in symbolically complete form. The monastic group rendered by the ʿAdan reports was successful in implementing a totalizing civilizational discourse in the form of a strict interpretation of Christianized settlement. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful in implementing lasting results, falling prey to the limitations of their chosen mechanism of civilizational organization, chiefly an inability to reproduce. The


obvious tension of civilizational struggle, employed in efforts to define the Suquṭran population, was to become a hallmark of later Arab geographers’ recounting of the events that led to the contemporary understanding of Suquṭrī demographics and foundational communities.
On the heels of al-Hamdānī came the Baghdād-born al-Masʿūdī (d. 346-7/958) who

embarked on one of early medieval Islam’s greatest series of expeditions, setting his accounts down in the now lost Kitāb Akhbār al-zamān and Kitāb Murūj al-dhahab wa-maʿādin jawhar, amongst others.24 A free-ranging and independent author, he was afforded the opportunity for such wide travels by an unknown means and was renowned for his use of non-Arabic materials, a point which likely figures large in his conception of Suquṭrā. As a probable Shīʿī 25, he might have been welcome in the lands held by the Zaydī imamate of the Yemen, which had been established in 897 CE; however, no independent verification of such a journey to the Yemen is available.
Like al-Hamdānī, Masʿūdī conceives of the island as intimately connected to ʿAdan and

the coast of Yemen and, more remotely, the Red Sea (baḥr al-Qulzum), and connections are also drawn to the East as far as China. His account of Suquṭrā, however, appears in the midst of a long digression about the kings of the Aḥbāsh, possibly, like al-Hamdānī, establishing a vestigial link between Suquṭrā and the African mainland. The story of the settlement of the island also echoes al-Hamdānī’s in that the island was caused to be inhabited, this time with Alexander the
24 Abī

al-Ḥasan ʻAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn ʻAli al-Masʻūdi. Murūj al-dhahab wa-maʻādin al-jawhar, taṣnīf al-raḥḥālah al-kabīr wa-al-muʾarrikh al-Jalīl Abī al-Ḥasan ʻAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn ʻAli al-Masʻūdi bi-taḥqīq Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn ʻAbd al-Ḥamīd, 2 vols. Cairo: Maktabat al-Tijārīyah al-Kubrā (1948). For a reconstruction of Masʿūdī’s bibliography and the contents of individual works, see Pellat, Ch. "al-Masʿūdī, Abu 'l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. University of California Los Angeles. 16 August 2011 <http:// www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_COM-0704>

See Tarif Khalidi, Islamic Historiography: The Histories of al-Masʿūdī. Albany: State University of New York Press (1975), especially pp. 148-50.


Great (al-Iskandar ibn Fīlabus) filling in for the role of Kisrā. Upon the advice of Aristotle, Alexander sent out a group of Greeks (jamāʿah min al-yūnānīyīn) from his hometown (Stagira) to settle the island in order to profit from Suquṭran aloe (ṣabr). Unlike al-Hamdānī’s account, however, this sortie arrived to find that Suquṭrā was settled by Indians who were in possession of a great idol of illustrious reputation (kān lil-hind bi-hā ṣanmun ʿaẓīmun fa-naqala dhālika alṣanmu fī akhbāri yaṭūl dhikruhā) and subsequently overthrew the ruler. By Masʿūdī’s account the Greeks virtually eliminated any trace of the previous Indian civilization, although the phrase “intermingled amongst themselves” (tanāsala man bi-al-jazīrati min al-yūnānīyīna fī-hā) may still leave room for a secondary population on the island. Eventually, the island’s population Christianized (tanaṣṣara) after the passing of al-Iskandar, but the underpinnings and outward expression of the Greek civilizational structure remained. At the time of Masʿūdī’s writing, he argued that there was “no place on earth in which a group of Greeks have conserved their bloodline without any other Byzantine, or anyone else, having entered it except the people of [Suquṭrā].” 26 The contemporary Greek inhabitants are said to be like those Rūm from Shuwānī who make their living based on piracy of Muslim seafarers (kamā yaqṭaʿa al-rūmu fī al-Shuwānī ʿalā al-muslimīna fī al-baḥri al-rūmī).
The overtones of civilizational replacement are much starker and more clearly laid out in

Masʿūdi than in al-Hamdānī, although the underlying precept of its construction has remained essentially the same: a southward colonial migration occurred - this time explained solely in terms of a Greek population - which resulted in a series of totalizing civilizational displacements, from Indian to Greek followed by Greek to “Christian”. Masʿūdī did not record the presence of

The Arabic reads here: wa-laysa fī al-dunyā (wa-Allāhu aʿlamu) mawḍaʿun fīhī qawmun min al-yūnānīyīna yaḥfiẓūna ansābahum lam yudākhilhum fī ansābihim rūmiyyun wa-lā ghayru-hum ghayr ahli hādhihi al-jazīrah.


any Muslims or South Arabian tribes, perhaps subordinating his report to al-Hamdānī’s on the basis of the latter’s clearer appellations for the communities found on Suquṭrā and the former’s reliance on more obviously mythical origin reports.27 Masʿūdī does, however, introduce the important trope of myth into the accounts of Suquṭrā that are found in later geographers, specifically the link to Alexander and the mythic quality of the island in its own right. Along with the apocryphal account of Alexander and Aristotle, the Masʿūdī’s report ends with an allusion to other “wondrous accounts” (akhbār ʿajība) to be found in previous, now lost books. The inclusion of supra-natural details - though in more specific form - will figure prominently in later reports.
The record after Masʿūdī is unfortunately unclear and sparse for several centuries, with

little attention paid to the island, especially in terms of human interest. What little of original material is available comes to us from al-Idrīsī’s Nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq 28 and Yāqūt’s al-Aʻlām fī Kitāb Muʿajam al-Buldān29 and it is indeed thin-sown. What is of most use to us in these descriptions is the continued characterization of Suquṭrā as identification of existing tribes, their characteristics and known affinities with Suquṭrā.


Suquṭrā has enjoyed a long and profitable history of myth, appearing in ancient Egyptian fairy tales, the Hellenistic fables of Panachia as retold by Virgil, and serving as the ancestral burial place of the phoenix in Herodotus (The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. ed. Robert. b. Strassler, trans. Andrea L. Purvis. New York: Anchor Books (2007); 2.73.); Hommel, op. cit., associated the island with parts of the Odyssey and the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, as well. See Tkatsch, op. cit., pp. 477-8.

al-Sharīf Al-Idrīsī. Nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq, ed. Henri Pérès; Reinhart Pieter Anne Dozy; M.J. de Goeje. Algiers: Bibliothèque de l'Institut d'études supérieures islamiques d'Alger (1957). al-Imām Shihāb al-Dīn Abī ʿAbd Allah Yāqūt b. ʿAbd Allah al-Ḥamawī al-Rūmī al-Baghdādī, al-Aʻlām fī Kitāb Muʿajam al-Buldān, iʻdād wa-taḥqīq ʻAbd al-Ḥusayn al-Shabastarī. Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʻArabī (1985).
29 Al-Shaykh


Abū ʿAbdallah Muḥammad b. Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallah ibn Idrīs ʿAlī bi-Amr Allah al-

Idrīsī (d. 1164) himself was a nebulous product of al-Andalus 30 a groomed intellectual who served in the Sicilian court of the Norman king Roger II (d. 1154). While the author admits to having travelled a great deal in modern Spain and North Africa, the extent of his travels outside of these two regions is not well understood. Potentially barring the possibility of travels to the Yemen at this time was the increasing factionalization of the southwest Arabia, with local dynastic struggles between sunnī Najāḥī (fl. 1021-1156) and Sulaymānī (fl. 1069-1173) kingdoms of the northern portions of Tihāmah and the shīʿī Sulayḥī (fl. 1047-1138) kingdom of Sanʿāʾ and the southern highlands serving as a proxies for the larger Ayyūbid-Faṭimid struggle at that time.31
Geographically, al-Idrīsī identifies Suquṭrā as falling within the sphere of influence of

Mirbāṭ, a city located in modern Oman and geographically contiguous with the traditional heartland of the Mahrah tribes. Besides this demographic affinity to Suquṭrā, Mirbāṭ was also heavily involved with the frankincense trade and a natural port of some distinction, making it a natural trading partner for Suquṭrā. 32 The mention of Mirbāṭ within Idrīsī’s work comes during a long digression depicting the distances between cities on the Yemeni mainland in general and the

He is said to have been born in Qurṭuba, but biographical details to his life are scant. See the EI2 article: "al-Idrīsī, Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. Muḥammad b. ʿAbd Allāh b. Idrīs al-ʿĀlī bi-amr Allāh, called also al-Sharīf alIdrīsī." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. University of California Los Angeles. 16 August 2011 <http:// www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_SIM-3494>

For a study of the interactions between the varying factions during the middle of the 12th century before the Ayyūbid conquest of the Yemen, see: G. Rex Smith, “The political history of the Islamic Yemen down to the first Turkish invasion (1-945/622-1538),” (I) Studies in the Medieval History of the Yemen and South Arabia, op. cit., pp. 129-139.

Bosworth, C.E. "al-Mirbāṭ." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. University of California Los Angeles. 15 June 2011 <http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_SIM-5219>


Ḥaḍramawt in particular. No direct mention of Suquṭrā is made - other than allusions to its aloes, to which Ḥaḍramī aloe is compared unfavorably - but one may surmise its existence within alIdrīsī’s description based upon the existing prospective of the the Bay of the Moon (ghubb alqamar) extending six-days’ travel from Sharmat al-Muqaddam to Mirbāṭ, at the end of which is found a country “on which it is said there are found camels producing offspring (khalifāt)”. It is clear from this passing mention that al-Idrīsī never in fact visited the island and was only vaguely aware of its geographical location. What is more interesting for our purposes is the extraordinarily detailed picture of trading networks and traveling times between given cities and the degree of sophistication within the markets for Suquṭran goods. Clearly, the advanced state of trade being conducted in mainland Arabia at this time allowed for regular contact with Suquṭrā33 ; the regular trade of goods - if only the Suquṭrī aloes mentioned - executed along these routes allowed for the minute differentiation between the superior Suquṭrī ṣabr and the lower grade Ḥaḍramī imitations. Remote though the island may have been by al-Idrīsī’s reckoning, the ready availability of Suquṭran goods in mainland Yemen resists claims that the island was as isolated as first appears. Additionally, the description of population dynamics on the mainland cities “communities (ṭawāʾif) of Yemenīs and ʿUmānīs” in Sabā and “mixtures [of people] (akhlāṭ) from the Yemen and the rest of the Arab tribes” - paints a very diverse picture of the possible trading communities with which Suquṭrans and their goods could have come into contact.
Following al-Idrīsī, the next significant mention of Suquṭrā occurs in Yāqūt’s

monumental geographical, biographical and literary work Muʿajam al-Buldān. His travels were renowned and took him from Alexandria to Balkh, as well as numerous trips to the Persian Gulf


Zoltán Biedermann. “An Island Under the Influence: Suquṭrā at the Crossroads of Egypt, Persia, and India from Antiquity to the Early Modern Age,” Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea, ed. Ralph Kauz. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag (2010), pp. 9-24.


island of Kīsh in the service of his master ʿAskar ibn al-Naṣr al-Ḥamawī, but apparently no farther south than this.34 The first mention of Suquṭrā is found within his closing words of the fifth chapter of Muʿajam al-Buldān, in which he sets forth a description of the lands bounding the Indian Ocean to the north:

[T]he Indian Ocean: [where] new people appear at every gulf, but the biggest of these and the greatest are the Persian Gulf and al-Qulzum, which have already been mentioned.35

Having already mentioned the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, it is clear that Yāqūt considers

those areas to be described in the coming chapter as apart from them, both geographically and demographically. The real object of the succeeding sixth chapter is given in the last line: “to provide a picture (arsumu laka ṣūratan) of that [Indian] Ocean for you and how the sea has been populated”. A short description of the coast east from Tīz is given, from the house of worship at Sūmnāt - “which is for them (Indians) like Mekkah is for Muslims” - to the Ṣarīḥ lands of China. The sense of otherness which Yāqūt means to convey here is unmistakable, from his comments on the immense demographic and confessional variegation to his contention that the differing reports of the area “strain the mind to mention” (aqwālan mufāwitatan yaqdaḥu fī ʿaqli dhākiruhā). Apart from these great civilizational wonders of mainland Asia there is found on its islands a different class of habitation in the midst of the Indian Ocean: Ceylon, Sarandīb, Kūlam and Suquṭrā. They are characterized as legion, places upon which “no one could ever count except Allāh” (mā lā yuḥṣīhu illā Allāh).


For a map of these travels, see: Gilliot, Cl. "Yāḳūt al-Rūmī." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. University of California Los Angeles. 15 June, 2011. <http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry? entry=islam_COM-1356>

The Arabic here reads: kadhālika al-hindī wa yatashaʿʿabu min al-hindī khuljānun kathīratun illā anna akbaraha wa-aʿẓamuaha baḥr al-fārisi wa-al-Qulzum.


Yāqūt’s actual description of Suquṭrā seems anticlimactic after such a build-up, almost

entirely bereft of original information, and what is given is at times contradictory in its assertions as to the nature of the Suquṭrans themselves.36 He quotes liberally from al-Hamdānī, using his navigational headings to balad al-Zanj and the of the baḥr al-zanj, in addition to the assertion that those who are to be found on the island currently are Arab Christians. Masʿūdī’s legend of Aristotle and Alexander is preserved nearly word-for-word, going so far as to use the same word for the group sent to the island (jamāʿah); mentioning Aristotle’s hometown; the Indian population found there and a description of its idol, and its eventual conquest; the population’s eventual conversion to Christianity; and the preservation of the Greek bloodline to the exclusion of anyone outside Suquṭrā. The seeming contradiction of ascribing an Arab character to the contemporary population while at the same time extolling the pure Greek bloodline lends credence to Gilliot’s assessment of Yāqūt’s travels and strongly expresses the latter’s reliance on his textual predecessors regarding the more distant areas of the Indian Ocean. This lavish geographical precision used to describe the changing landscapes and people of mainland Asia compares strongly with the way in which al-Idrīsī was able to render the land- and sea-bound trade routes of the Yemen without a clear geographical picture of Suquṭrā itself.
The last of the Arab geographers to supply us with an account of Suquṭrā’s population

before the modern period, Abū Bakr b. Muḥammad b. Masʿūd b. ʿAlī b. Ibn Al-Mujāwir alBaghdādī al-Naysābūrī (d. 1291?) was also the most knowledgeable about South Arabia since the


The account in Ibn Qaṭṭāʿ is likewise lifted wholesale from Yāqūt’s account. See his Kitāb al-Abnīyāt al-asmāʾ wa-al-afʻāl wa-al-maṣādir, taḥqīq wa-dirāsat Aḥmad Muḥammad ʻAbd al-Dāyim. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub wa-alWathāʾiq al-Qawmīyah, Markaz Taḥqīq al-Turāth, (1999).


days of al-Hamdānī almost three centuries before. 37 A native of Khurāsān, he spent a great deal of his adult life traveling with commercial aims, his book the result of a lifelong passion for local customs, curios, and lore - historical or not. 38 Like Yāqūt, he was also an experienced traveller of the Persian Gulf and had also undertaken commercial missions to Kīsh. Despite this wealth of information at his disposal, Ibn al-Mujāwir was never in any respect a careful historian and his writings were suited to the purposes of collecting pertinent information for a business traveller to South Arabia and the Hijāz during the later medieval period.39 As such, he is counted as the most enthusiastic of Suquṭran myth-makers, whether the object be the creation of the island itself or the practices of the inhabitants to safeguard the island.
Ibn al-Mujāwir clearly conceives of Suquṭrā in his Tarīkh al-Mustabṣir 40 as falling within

the suzerainty of the Yemenī mainland, making reference to the island in relation to other notable locations as the baḥr al-Qulzum, Bāb al-Mandab, ʿAdan and Zabīd. Ibn al-Mujāwir also records

29 As

much is argued in the EI2 article for ibn al-Mujāwir, but the gaps in his knowledge and his over-reliance on fantastic sources is also attested: “The author of Taʾrīkh al-Mustabṣir obviously knew a great deal about western and southern Arabia. At the same time, his ignorance of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula was abysmal.” See: Rentz, G. "Ibn al-Mudjāwir, Djamāl (Nadjm) al-Dīn Abu 'l-Fatḥ Yūsuf b. Yaʿḳūb b. Muḥammad al-Shaybānī al-Dimashḳī." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. University of California Los Angeles. 18 June 2011 <http:// www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_SIM-3300>

The most complete treatment of the likely origins of Ibn al-Mujāwir comes in G. Rex Smith’s essay “Ibn alMujāwir’s 7th/13th Century Guide to Arabia: The Eastern Connection,” pp. 71-88 (V) as found in Studies in the Medieval History of the Yemen and South Arabia, ed. G. Rex Smith, Variorum Collected Studies Series. Aldershot, Hampshire, Great Britain: Ashgate (1999). While biographical information for the author is incomplete, there seems to have been a misattribution of K. al-Mustabṣir to another Ibn al-Mujāwir, a native of Damascus (p. 86).

For commentary on the commercial and voyeuristic aspects of Ibn al-Mujāwir’s work, see G. Rex Smith: “Ibn alMujāwir on Dhofar and Soqotra,” (III), pp. 79-92; “Ibn al-Mujāwir’s 7th/13th century Arabia: the wonderful and the humorous,” (IV), pp. 111-124; “Ibn al-Mujāwir’s 7th/13th century guide to Arabia: the eastern connection,” op. cit.; “Some ‘anthropological’ passages from Ibn al-Mujāwir’s guide to Arabia and their proposed interpretations,” (VI), pp. 160-171; “Magic, jinn and the supernatural in medieval Yemen: examples from Ibn al-Mujāwir’s 7th/13th century guide,” (VIII), pp. 7-18 from Studies in the Medieval History of the Yemen and South Arabia, op. cit.

Yusuf Ibn Yaʿqūb Ibn al-Mujāwir. Tārīkh al-Mustabṣir. ed. G. Rex Smith. London: Ashgate for the Hakluyt Society (2008).


a second report about the islanders from the books of “the accursed Byzantines” (al-Rūm alMalāʿīn) that the island is guarded by the land of the Arabs (jazīratun maḥrūsatun bi-arḍi alʿarb). Reaching farther back in time than any other commentator had yet done, Ibn al-Mujāwir provides an origin myth for the island. In two places, he uses the passive form yuqāl, the common mythical discourse marker of Classical Arabic41 : once at the beginning of his report and once in to introduce the reports of al-Rūm al-Malāʾīn. By Ibn al-Mujāwir’s accounting, Suquṭrā was originally a point which marked the boundary between sea and land (wa kānat suquṭrā mā bayna al-baḥri wa al-barr); eventually, God opened up the mouth of the sea which then rushed to ʿAdan, and then further into the Qulzum area, creating the baḥr al-Qulzum with Suquṭrā now becoming “an island within the waves of the sea”. In this way, Suquṭrā is conceived of as the boundary marker between the known and unknown from its earliest days, a mountain stronghold powerful enough to hold back the gates of the flood until God commanded otherwise. Such idealistic and Utopian discourse abounds in further description of the island:
“[T]here is, in all of these seas, no bigger island and none more pleasant. It has many palms and gardens

and many farms of corn and wheat. There are also different types of camel, cow and domesticated animals. There is running water, sweet to the taste, and this forms big bay whose beginning springs from the wide and tall mountains. Usually the sea provides some types of fish. There grows on this island a “tree” of Soqotrī cactus and Dragon’s blood, and on its shores ambergris is found in large quantities.”42

Moving on to discuss the inhabitants, Ibn al-Mujāwir describes them as Christians from a

South Arabian tribe best known for their practice of “all types of sorcery”. In efforts to combat this wickedness, the Most Righteous Sayf al-Dīn Sunqur, the mawlā of the Ayyūbid ruler Ismāʿīl ibn Ṭughtakan (d. 598/1202) sent a detachment of five galleys, to overtake the island (la-

31 See: Pinault, David. Story-telling techniques in the Arabian nights.Leiden, New York: Brill (1992), p. 253.

Translation from G. Rex Smith, “Ibn al-Mujāwir on Dhofar and Soqotra,” op. cit., pp. 85-6.


yaʾkhadha al-jazīrah). The siḥrah, however, proved too powerful for even such a strong invading force:
“When the detachment approached the island, it was blurred from their eyes and and they began to rise and descend, launch and set down night and day, day and night. They never found the island by perceptive faculty, nor did they find a trace of news about the island, so they returned.” 43

The sum of Ibn al-Mujāwir’s portrayal - and perhaps the collection of portrayals given

here - is a picture of Suquṭrā that is both nominally within the scope of the political identity of a larger mainland power or political organizing principle, yet outside the bounds of cultural or religious affiliation with those powers. It had always been a liminal zone, a place that separated the familiarity of land with the dangerous unknowability of the sea, a place that remained the cultural and physical map but which had thus far resisted all attempts to actually know the place or bend it to the aims of those who sought to control it. It is this isolation which takes a prominent place in these “replacement” accounts - separating Suquṭrans from their mainland peers and yet still attracting intermittent attention in the interest of its unique economic potential. Foreign groups - Indians, Greeks and Arabs alike - had come or been sent to the Suquṭrā with a civilizational mission - often in the form of commerce or religion - and eyes on its riches, but had themselves been “Suquṭran-ized,” the object of later civilizational missions bent on the “replacement” of that civilization. Such objectification led to mythicization of the island and its origins from early on, a technique which carried over to descriptions of the population.
These geographers show several of the traits common to portrayals of autochthones set

forth by Guha as contributing to a skewed view of aboriginal peoples, though they fell short of executing such a view in the highly-structured form of later authors. Prominent among the

The Arabic here reads: fa-lammā qaribū al-qawmu min al-jazīrati inṭamasat al-jazīratu ʿan ʿaīyūni al-qawmi waṣārū ṣāʿidīna muḥdirīna ṭāliʿīna wa-nāzilīni laylan wa-nahāran ayaman wa-layālī fa-lam yajidū lil-jazīrati ḥassan wa-lā waqʿū lil-jazīrati ʿalā khabrin fa-raddū rājiʿīn.


features of these reports is the colonizing impulse, easily seen in the original reports of alHamdānī and Masʿūdī, which were later repeated by Yāqūt, and brought to a head with the Ibn al-Mujāwir’s narration of an actual colonization attempt under the newly installed Ayyūbid regime. Likewise, the mythicization of the island’s geographical setting and increasingly hostile depictions of the island’s populace and their connections to “primordial” magic fit in strongly with Guha’s paradigm. The authors are overall marked by a propensity toward building profiles based on credulity, either of the previous record or local informants, as a result of a lack of information occasioned by the difficulties of traveling to the Yemen at that time. Ethnographers (16th cent. CE - Present)
With respect to the historical record, much, if not all, of the pre-21st century scholarly

literature focused on ethnographic commentary in Suquṭrā had a tendency in one of two decidedly unproductive directions for modern investigation. Initially, the the characterization of the island’s inhabitants reflected the numerous problematic impressions of the island: a perceived lack of technologically advanced civilization; an implied state of isolation, applicable to both the island itself and its inhabitants, which stunted that technological growth; and a racial taxonomy of the island’s inhabitants which appears informed solely by the needs of creating a racial hierarchy suitable to the goals of colonialism.44 The second strain of thought tended toward the mythicization of origin for all things Suquṭrā, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, resulting in an understanding of the archipelago as modern iconography for the mythography of an Edenic discourse.45 This tone can be viewed in the literature produced from the first explicitly European

For a discussion of the broad use of such categories, see: Charles Hirschman. “The Making of Race in Colonial Malaya: Political Economy and Racial Ideology,”Sociological Forum , Vol. 1, No. 2 (Spring, 1986), pp. 330-361.

Serge Elie. “A Historical Genealogy of Socotra as an Object of Mythical Speculation, Scientific Research & Development Experiment,” AYIS Yemen Update 44 (2002). See also: Richard H. Grove, Green Imperialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).


colonial attempt by the Portuguese in the early 16th century and continuing most prominently thereafter in the form of British and German naval surveys and natural science expeditions to the end of the 19th century.
Much of what we know about Suquṭrā following the advent of the 16th century comes

from European sources. The first informed comment on the nature of the Suquṭran populace in this period came from the Portuguese chronicler João de Barros (d. 1570), best known for his work Décadas da Ásia46 which detailed the Portuguese colonial experience in Asia. He describes the people of Suquṭrā as “gente mui bestial”, bereft of advanced civilization, and dressed in rags.47 This line of polemic is typical of Portuguese attempts at consolidating hegemony in the Indian Ocean trade, marked with the evocation of an emotional consciousness that went beyond civilizational collision and often manifested itself in violent, oppositional rhetoric.48 The period succeeding the brief Portuguese colonization was typified by steady, if unremarkable, maintenance of contact with the both the East and West, and despite the numerous European chroniclers who voyaged to the Yemen in the meantime - most notably Albuquerque (16th), Jourdain (17th), and Niebuhr & Bruce (18th century) - England established early preeminence on

João de Barros. Décadas da Ásia (excerptos das quatro décadas): Ensaio biográfico e histórico-crítico, selecção, notas e índices remissivos, ed. Mário Gonçalves Viana. Pôrto : Editôra Educação Nacional (1944), dec II, liv. I cap. 3.

João de Barrs, op. cit., Dec. II, liv. I, cap. 3; c.f. Beckingham “Some Early Travels in Arabia,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 2 (Oct., 1949), pp. 155-176. An earlier description of the island given by another European traveler, the Köln born Arnold von Harff (d. 1505), contradicts the appearance of the island’s people; Beckingham sides with de Barros’ description, but grants that von Harff’s focus appears to have rested on religious observance in Suquṭrā moreso than any anthropological description (pp. 162-3). For more on van Harff, see: M.H.I. Letts, Eberhard von Groote. The Pilgrimage of Arnold von Harff, Knight: from Cologne through Italy, Syria, Egypt, Arabia, Ethiopia, Nubia, Palestine, Turkey, France, and Spain, which he accomplished in the years 1496 to 1499, 2 vols. London: Hakluyt Society (1946), and Émile Ernault, Le Breton d'Arnold von Harff, H. Champion (1911).

E. Wolf. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: UC Press (1982), p. 237; For the “emotional consciousness” quote, see Serjeant, R. B. The Portuguese off the South Arabian Coast. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1963), p. 2 . cf. Elie, Historical Genealogy.


the island. One early account, recorded by William Fitch, is remarkable both for the mention of the Suquṭran custom of drinking coffee as well as for his two-tiered taxonomization of the population by way of political engagement and skin color; additionally, the earth was cursorily surveyed to assess the inhabitants’ state of removal from an “Edenic environment”.49 Especially at this early stage, little of historical value can be gained of these accounts due to their impressionistic nature:

[These] commentators seemed to have been engaged, for the most part, in the practice of a kind of human ethology, that is observing the "Others" as if they were uncommunicative lower primates, and formulating cultural representations that were overdetermined by the imagination of the observer than by the perception of the observed. Needless to observe that such predisposition renders doubtful the reliability of translation that purports to explain the natives' thinking and thus the authenticity of the representation of local realities.50

By 1830, the conversion of the Bombay Marine to Her Majesty’s Indian Navy and its

subsequent capture of ʿAdan in 1839 marked the transition to a new period of more intensive charting of the Indian Ocean, for which Suquṭrā was seen as a key staging post. The first expedition to make landfall on the island, that of Lieutenant Wellsted of the Indian Navy in 1834, gave clear voice to a colonial stake in the island and a dim view of the inhabitants’ primordial grasp of reality:

“A hulk shifted from one port to the other, according to the season, would at once obviate the objection to its [Suquṭrā’s] single harbour and, at the same time, render us independent of the natives, whose want of boats and indolent habits have hitherto, when steamers have arrived on their coast, been the cause of considerable delay.”


Elie, Historical Genealogy, pp. 5-10.


Serge Elie. “A Historical Genealogy of Socotra as an Object of Mythical Speculation, Scientific Research & Development Experiment,” Yemen Update 44 (2002). Accessed from: http://www.aiys.org/webdate/socot.html


“An Arab once brought a compass for one of our officers to look at who, after examining it, used the Arabic word “cold” to imply its sluggishness; the man returned sometime afterward with a supply of pepper-corns placed in the box beneath, for the purpose, as he observed, of warming it.” 51

Further missions to the island in the following decades were largely academic in nature,

with botanical or zoological inquiry representing a large portion of the detachments’ interest.52 Though nominally dispassionate about the state of human affairs, those natural scientists who traveled to Suquṭrā in the late 19th and early 20th century - the age typified by Guha’s Grant53 still engaged in impressionistic commentary on the human countenance of the island, conditioned in no small part by shades of social Darwinism and a vision of mythological foundations which the new colonial ambitions saw as the basis for the social fabric of Suquṭrā:

“It happens that on this island... there dwells a people whose origin is lost in myth, and whose speech the true relations are undetermined, who according to received reports, have obtained some degree of civilization and embraced Christianity have gone back from there advanced position to the lower state in which we now find them and thus present to us a feature of great interest to the history of mankind.” 54

It is in this period that the first dedicated interest in an “aboriginal element” in the

Suquṭran population appears in 1890 55, and whose existence as matter of fact seems to have

J. Wellsted. Travels in Arabia vol. II: Sinai; Survey of the Gulf of Akabah; Coasts of Arabia and Nubia. London: John Murray, Albermarle St. (1838), p. 306, 438. In terms of linguistic data, “it is very difficult to determine the exact origin of the data. Wellstedt surveyed the coasts and the interior of the island , but he neither specified from whom, nor from where he collected his data. We know that he was working with two guides: Hamed, who had a house in Tamarida (Hadibo), and Suleyman Muscaty who knew very well the tracks inside the island, and could communicate with the Bedouins; maybe, he helped to collect and to translate the vocabulary.” c.f. Simeone Senelle, Soqotri Dialectology, (Aden, Dec. 2003), p. 4

Examples include Glaser, Weihrauchland, Müller, Simony, Kossman Jahn and Paul’s two-part expedition, and the ornithological expedition of H.O. Forbes, and mentions in both of Bent’s monograph-length works. See Tkatsch, op. cit. p. 478; see also: T. Bent. “Explorations of the Frankincense Country, South Arabia,” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Aug., 1895), pp. 126-133.

Guha, op. cit., pp. 423-5; see above, p. 3.


Sir Isaac Baylet Balfour. Botany of Socotra. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, v. 31. Edinburgh: R. Grant Publishers (1888). c.f. Balfour, Douglass Botting. Island of the Dragon’s Blood. New York: Wilfred Funk, Inc. (1958), p. 6.

JS King, “The Aborigines of Sokotra: An Ethnological, Religious, and Philological Review”, The Indian Antiquary (July 1890), pp. 189-215.


crystalized sometime before the publication of Kings of Arabia, a monograph by the former British advisor on South Western Arabian Affairs to the British High Commission in Egypt, wherein the author characterizes Suquṭrā’s aboriginal people according to racial type and isolated geographical considerations: “In the mountains are... the true aborigines. These are light-skinned, tall, and robust, with thin lips, straight noses, and straight black hair.” 56
The lack of deviation from these early quasi-anthropological methods and descriptors

proved strong well into the latter half of the 20th century, and further anthropological attempts fared little better in developing the understanding of the island’s ethnographic fault lines and contours. Douglas Botting - a professional adventurer and BBC correspondent - published Island of the Dragon’s Blood 57 in 1958, a book which failed to impress reviewers with even a semblance of substance, its lack of rigor and seeming pursuit of primitivizing the population rather than scientific investigation causing one commenter to lament:

[A]nthropologically Island of the Dragon’s Blood adds little to our knowledge beyond the 19th century accounts. The book is about 90 percent a chronicle of what they ate for breakfast and which rascal stole what from whom. The other ten percent contains some accounts of Bedowin life in caves, the exploration of deserted stone buildings, how Bedowin women make pottery, and a few other ethnographic details.” 58

Despite such misgivings on the part of his reviewers, Botting’s book has become a staple

in the field of Suquṭran studies59, and the mission’s intense focus on the island’s primitive conditions and habitats is a sure echo of Guha’s critique of such methodology.

Harold F. Jacob. Kings of Arabia: The Rise and Set of Turkish Sovereignty in the Arabian Peninsula. London: Mills & Boon (1923), reprinted by Garnet Publishing Ltd., Folios Archive Library (2007), pp. 224; p. 133.

Botting, op. cit. p. 55.


Carleton S. Coon. “Review: Island of the Dragon’s Blood,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 61. Issue 6. June 1959, p. 1121.

The book is cited no fewer than 29 times in other academic literature, ranging from fields of botany and zoology to a 2006 work on the history of Christianity on the island. See: Zoltán Biedermann. Soqotra: Geschichte einer christlichen Insel im Indischen Ozean vom Altertum bis zur frühen Neuzeit. Maritime Asia Series, No 17. Weisbaden: Harrasowitz & Co (2006).


Additional missions to the island were similarly oriented along anthropological aims,

especially the Oxford missions (the first of which being the basis for Botting’s book) conducted in 1956, 58, & 1964-5, which did little but add depth to the 19th century accounts of racial variety. Long passages are dedicated to distinguishing between the “African” and “Arab” population types found on Suquṭrā by way of head measurement. Similar claims were built upon the breezily construed assumption that, “the earlier inhabitants were probably from Arabia,” owing to the Bedouins’ “clos[e] resemblance” to the Himyarites surviving in the the Yemen’s Mahrah region60, or are built upon the fact that the Bedouins of the island were “undoubtedly” an autochthonous class.61 Continued focus on the phenomenon of this “bedouin” or “indigenous” racial type and that population’s cave habitation - either in conjunction with or independent of the characterization of Suquṭrans as having fallen into a civilizational stasis beginning in the 6th or 7th century CE - is prevalent in many accounts, when any such attempt to reconstruct the island’s pre-16th century history is even attempted. 62
Very much in the mold of the British expeditions was Brian Doe’s historical ethnography

of Suquṭrā ascertained by means of archaeological findings. Therein, Doe - a trained architect argued for the existence of a highly developed and complex autochthonous society on Suquṭrā that flourished with the frankincense trade until the 7th century under the stewardship of Ḥaḍramī kings.63 It was postulated that with the coming of Islam there occurred what resembled

P.G. Boxhall. “Island of Bliss,” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 132, No. 2 (Jun., 1966), pp. 213-222; p. 216.


R. W. Lister et al. “The Blood Groups and Haemoglobin of the Bedouin of Socotra,” Man. Vol. 1 No. 1, Mar. 1966, pp. 82-86, p. 82.

See: P. L. Shinnie, Socotra, Antiquity 34 (1960), pp. 100-10; Botting, op. cit., pp. 201-6, 216; Brian Doe, Socotra: Island of Tranquility. London: Immel (1992), pp. 34-6 - note particularly the lack of comment regarding the “troglodytic” community, other than the comment that on the verge of the 1970s, “a significant proportion of the population was still dwelling in caves.”

Doe, op. cit., pp. 34-38.


a population replacement on the island, resulting in the immediate and deleterious relapse of society - a state which contributed to the isolation of the island and resulted in Suquṭrā’s society remaining untouched and undeveloped until the present day.
The 20th century’s capstone ethnographic work on Suquṭrā was Island of the Phoenix by

Vitaly Naumkin64, the premiere Soviet anthropologist of the Central Asian republics and a classically trained Orientalist. The Soviet emphasis on the compilation and editing of world ethnic groups and “ethno-genesis” most certainly had a part in leading Naumkin to his study of the ethnic make-up of Suquṭrā. 65 With a geographic environment so isolated and unique, Suquṭrā was perfectly suited as a proving ground for Naumkin’s particular brand of “ethnogeography, which is the spatial-physical environment where culture is produced as the historical result of the interaction between geographical, anthropological and economic factors.” 66 Accordingly, Naumkin set out along lines of the “classical” ethnography undertaken by Botting in terms of physical measurements 67 in addition to his ethnogeographical sphere, best typified in his study of Mahran communities on Suquṭrā. 68 The results of the study, as outlined by Elie, resulted in:

“a division of the island’s population into a three-tiered ethnosphere, with each tier constituting a particular ecological niche, namely the mountain areas, the high plateaux and the coastal zones. Each zone was seen as a breeding ground for the emergence of a distinct racial phenotype and cultural ontology.” 69


Vitaly V. Naumkin. Island of the Phoenix : An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra ; translated from Russian by Valery A. Epstein. Reading (England): Ithaca Press (1993); also available in Arabic as Suquṭrá : hunāka, ḥaythu baʻathat al-ʻanqāʼ, tarjamat ʻAlī Ṣāliḥ al-Khalāqī. ʻAdan: Jāmiʻat ʻAdan [1999], pp. 1-122, ill.

Elie. “South Arabia’s Strategic Gateway and Symbolic Playground,” op. cit., p. 154. Ibid., pp. 154-5. Naumkin, Hunaka: Haythu baʿthat al ʿAnqāʾ, p. 27-36. Ibid., p. 59-64. Elie, “South Arabia’s Strategic Gateway and Symbolic Playground”, op. cit, p. 156.






The similarity between this codification of human variety based on geographic location is

especially striking when compared to Guha’s portrayal of 20th century ethnographic studies of aboriginal peoples as if they were so many “geological strata.” 70 In addition to area of especial inquiry, examples of Naumkin’s “primitivist” focus 71 abound, with a focus on the rustic nature of the island’s autochthonous community and the nomadic pastoralist origins of societal institutions including marriage, gender roles, and tribal organization72, a methodological approach which subjected him to criticism in circles beyond the anti-Soviet anthropological camp.73
These studies from the 19th and 20th centuries hew closest to Guha’s recounting of the

framing of aboriginal peoples. Accounts of longstanding isolation and civilizational neglect are present in nearly every study and are constructed on the basis of a comparatively short recounting of European contact with the island and modern informants. When efforts were made to consult the archaeological record, a methodology capable of confirming such assertions, consideration of the record stopped at the mid-7th century CE when the attendant population shifts which concurred with the supposed arrival of Islam nixed the island’s capacity for largescale achievement. Likewise, increased attention to racial types populating Suquṭrā and their place within both spatial and chronological dimensions of the island’s demography were focused along lines of Guha’s proposed template - aboriginal elements occupying the most primitive of locales on the island and the most primitive modern living conditions signaling, “undoubtedly”, the most primitive of racial types inhabiting the island. Of late, the Dubai-based Nathalie Peutz


See above, p. 4 Serge Elie. ‘Vitaly Naumkin: Portrait of Suquṭrā’s First Ethnographer’, Yemen Times, 13:622 (2003), p. 5. Naumkin, op. cit., pp. 105-115.




Constant Hamès. “Review: Island of the Phoenix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra by Vitaly Naumkin,” Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 39é année, No. 86 Apr.-Jun. 1994, p. 299.


has offered correction to some of these methodologies.74 Her critique concerns the image of “Bedouins” (read: “aboriginal”) in the Suquṭran context and its role in both marking and cementing the abjection of inland-dwelling Suquṭrans as part of a larger “global hierarchy of value,” 75 which has relegated them to an “unworldly troglodyte.” 76 Her work marks a great methodological leap forward in assessing both internal and external valuations of the comparative civilizational worth placed on Suquṭrā’s aboriginal community historically and contemporarily. Linguists (19th cent. - Present)

“Associated with the search for the ethnic origin of Suquṭrans was the need to determine the original carriers of the Soqotri language using the genealogical framework of language diffusion. Accordingly, there were attempts to establish a sequence of migratory waves to the island.” 77 Out of the various means employed to study aboriginality on Suquṭrā, it must be mentioned that the field of linguistics has been the most rigorous and reliable in its aims to do away with impressionistic evaluations of the island’s character and investigate measurable realities. Additionally, linguistically oriented studies into the nature of an assumed aboriginal population in Suquṭrā are of some use in considering the origins of that community, in that the modern Suquṭrī language is itself a unique signifier of Suquṭrī identity. As a member of the Modern South Arabian Languages (MSAL) group, Suquṭrī was the first to be discovered in modern times by Wellsted and is an independent language related to five other still-surviving


Nathalie Peutz. “Bedouin Abjection: World Heritage, worldliness and worthiness at the margins of Arabia,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 338–360,

Ibid., p. 339 Nathalie Peutz. “Shall I Tell You What Soqotra Once Was?, op. cit. Serge Elie, “South Arabia’s Strategic Gateway and Symbolic Playground,” op. cit., p. 138.




sister languages - Mehrī, Harsūsī, Baṭḥarī, Hobyot, and Jibbālī - as well as the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, all of which share a common ancestor in Epigraphic South Arabian. 78 It is probably modern Suquṭrī’s linguistic propinquity to its mainland MSAL neighbors that has so strongly lent itself to the formation of a cultural aboriginal type that is closely identified with the Arabian peninsula; however, the reliance on modern linguistic data collection and fieldwork techniques is no guarantor of claims of an unbroken continuity of Suquṭrī as an independent language, and basing the reality of an ancient autochthonous Suquṭrī community on modern linguistic features is itself a tenuous and tendentious conclusion.
Besides the rudimentary compendium of Suquṭrī executed by Wellsted during his brief

visit in 1834, the first period after the European “discovery” of Suquṭrā saw very little in the way of developing Suquṭrī linguistic studies. What work was done focused heavily on the Classical canon79, a means employed to establish directly the nature of the original inhabitants of the island. The hypothesis of Indian origins of Suquṭrā’s name gained wide traction by way of Greek texts, which gave the name dvīpa sukhutara (Gr. Ευδαίμων  Αραβία) - translated as “fortunate island” - from which there is a probable connection to the later, Latin appellation of Arabia felix to the whole of south-west Arabia.80 From this Sanskrit origin, various Greek corruptions helped


Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle. “The Modern South Arabian Languages,” The Semitic Languages, ed. R. Hetzron. London: Routledge (1997), pp. 378-423, p. 378.

The most frequently cited passages occur in Theophrastus, Hist. Plant. ix. 4, 10; Pliny, Nat. Hist.; Agatharcides, Diodoros, iii. 47; Anon. Periplus; Ptolemaeus, viii. 22, 27; Ammianus Marcilinus xxiii. 6, 47; Pausanius, vi. 26, 9. See Tkatsch, op. cit., pp. 477-80 for the appropriate references.

See: Ritter, Erkunde, Berlin (1845), xii., 64, 336; Bohlen. Das alten Indien. Königsberg (1830), ii. 139; Benfey. Enzyklopädie. ed. Ersch-Grubner. sect. ii, vol. vii, p. 30; F. Hommel. Gundriss der Geographie und Geschichte des alten Orients. Munich (1904), p. 212, note 2; c.f Tkatsch, pp. 476-7.


the name evolve into its later (5th cent. CE) form of Διοσκοριδα81,  predicated upon the sailing custom associating the constellation Gemini with good fortune.82 These claims to Greek and Indian influence in the name of the island are best reflected in the medieval Arab geographers, as shown above.
However, after more regular European missions were made to the island in the second

half of the 19th century, views on origin of Suquṭrā’s name began to change sharply from this accepted Sanskrit-Greek base, especially after the publication of Balfour’s On the Island of Suquṭrā, which first asserted Suquṭrā’s stronger historical connection with the less distant neighboring lands of Abyssinia and South Arabia.83 Lengthy cases were made by Golenishef, Glaser and Wissowa for an Egyptian origin to the place name owing to Ptolemaic descriptions of the island alternately known as A-a-penenka or Pa-anch, a place intimately connected with the Egyptian Punt land and a source for frankincense.84 Hypotheses which moved the origin of Suquṭrā’s name still closer geographically were also advanced, locating the origin of the island’s name in one of a variety of Semitic languages, including an Ethiopic source85 ; Punic or a closely related Syriac derivation, as part of a larger series of migrations that took this seafaring

81 Anthony

Charles. A Classical Dictionary: containing an account of the Principal Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors and Intended to elucidate all the important points of Geography, History, Biography, Mythology and Fine Arts of the Greeks and Romans; together with an account of coins, weights, and measures with tabular values of the same. New York: Harper & Brothers (1848), p. 449.

Tkatsch, op. cit., p. 477 E. Balfour, op. cit., p. 486 sqq.



See: Golenishef. Verhandlungen d. V. Oreintalistenkongresses. Berlin (1882); E Glaser. Skizze der Gerschichte und Geographie Arabiens. Berlin (1890), ii 182; P. Wissowa. R.E. s.v. Sabaʾ, col. 1405 sqq. C.f. Tkastch, op. cit., p. 477

See: T. Bent. Southern Arabia. London (1900), p. 351.


community both to the African mainland and Suquṭrā86; or a strong relation to South Arabian languages, both living in dead, in the form of Mehrī87 and Minaeo-Sabaen 88 epigraphy, respectively.
These new possible readings of Suquṭrā’s etymology considerably muddied the waters of

certainty surrounding the island’s naming, a fact which, concurrently, seemingly lent credence to the idea of “native” elements within the island’s population. For the first time, researchers were inclined to project the reality of a distinct, autochthonous Suquṭran lineage whose linguistic effect remained constant despite the occurrence of numerous and wide-ranging civilizational replacements 89, rather than as single, stable population base drawn from a single, foreign foundational community whose language had been successively corrupted. In essence, the argument conceived of Suquṭrī - as a language - as stable historical fact, long since free of influence due to the island’s intractable isolation. As D.H. Müller, the first linguist to advocate a degree of independence for the Suquṭran language, framed the problem: “The Sokoṭrī language occupies a singular position, a result of the ethnological mixture in the population, and it is not easy to fit into a linguistic genealogical table.” 90 Despite this problematic, Müller attempted


See: Glaser. Skizze, op. cit., ii, p. 250, 297 sq. and Punt, p. 1, 31, 65; c.f. Tkastch, op. cit., p. 477.


Bittner. “Charakteristik der Sprache der Insel Suquṭrā,” Anz Wien; “Vorstudien zur Grammatik und zum Wūortenbuche der Suquṭrī-Sprache, i. SBAK, Wien, clxxiii, 4, p. 193.

D.H. Müller. Die Mehri und Soqoṭri Sprache, Schriften der südarabichen Expedition Ak. Wien. (1902, 1905, 1907), vols. I., VI., VII.
89 According

to a reading of Guha, the occurrence of Greek-speakers and Christian elements on Suquṭrā in the view of Arab geographers, coupled with the older accounts of multiple and independent communities on the island since ancient times has led to a view of the island that is informed by an understanding of civilizational dynamics that equates a change in suzerainty to a measurable change in cultural and material practice.

Müller, op. cit., p. 480. Compare with his presentation of the characteristics of Mahrī: Müller, W.W. "Mahra." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman; ,n Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. University of California Los Angeles. 27 May 2011 <http:// www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_SIM-4807>


conceive of a historical Suquṭrī by use of Bedouin informants and an investigation into the Bedouin “idiolect” 91, a situation he theorized would solve the riddle posed by such a racially varied populace by relying on the purity of language represented in the uncorrupted Bedouin dialect of Suquṭrī. Müller here takes great liberty in molding the 19th demographic realities of the island into historical fact by framing the issue of the language’s origin as effectively unknowable, a problem sembably further compounded by the waves of population replacement and mixture, save by way of the autochthone Bedouin. As such, the Bedouin stood outside this cycle of civilizational and linguistic replacement which, at the time, was seen as a fait accompli to the eyes of early 20th century researchers, a process long since ended centuries earlier with either the arrival of Islam or invading Mahrī tribes in the 15th century.92 This explanation proved to be eminently congruous with the ethnographic picture of Suquṭrans which was emerging at the same time, in which it was asserted that societal mores and practices were also suspended in a primitive state of development or a state that had regressed from a previous zenith, a state engendered during a period falling between the arrival of Islam and the Mahrī incursions of the the late pre-colonial period.
In the succeeding 50 years, linguistic studies of Suquṭrī fell into a state of benign neglect

as compared to other MSAL, punctuated by additional lexicons effected by Jahn (1915), the Oxford expeditions mentioned previously, and Wagner (1959) 93 and highlighted by the work of Wolf Leslau, whose emphasis on the Semitic languages of Ethiopia drew the assumption of

Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle. “Soqotri dialectology, and the evaluation of the language endangerment, to the memory of Saad Ibn Malek,” Second Scientific Symposium on ‘The Develping Strategy of Suquṭrā Archipelago and the other Yemeni Islands 12-16, Dec. 2003, University of Aden, p. 5.

Bent, South Arabia, op. cit.: “The island has changed little in the course of centuries” (p. 345.), and the linguistic situation “shows close ties with Mahra” (p. 392).

Jahn c.f. Simeone-Senelle, “The Modern South Arabian Languages”, op. cit., p. 380; E. Wagner. “Der Dialekt von ʿAbd al-Kurī,” Anthropos, XLIV/2-3 (1959).


imported linguistic influence tighter still into the surrounding climes of classical Abyssinia and South Arabia.94 However, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent unification of the Yemen in 1991, fertile ground for continued linguistic documentation was reopened on Suquṭrā. Efforts were spearheaded by Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle and Antoine Lonnet, with Naumkin’s partner Viktor Porkhomovsky also publishing a study on Suquṭrī oral poetry.95 Their works have played a pivotal role in intensifying the connections between Suquṭrī and the Arabian mainland, while also producing dialectology studies; at present, four dialect groups have been identified on Suquṭrā, which closely tend toward Naumkin’s conception of the island’s “ethnospheres” - Hadibo and the northern coastal villages, southern coastal cities, Qalansiyah and environs in the west, and the “Bedouin” varieties spoken in the highlands.96 Investigations into the nature of this Bedouin dialect have centered around livestock counting and camel vocabulary. 97


W. Leslau. Lexique Soqoṭri (sudarabique moderne) avec comparaisons et explications étymologiques (Collection linguistique publiée par la société de linguistique de Paris, XLI). Paris: Klinkseick (1938).

Works dedicated to Suquṭrā include: Lexique Soqoṭri: les noms des parties du corps, Semitic Studies in Honor of Wolf Leslau on the occasion of his 85th birthday, June 14th, 1991. ed. A. Kaye Vol. 1. Wiesbaden: harrasowitz (1991), pp. 1443-87; “Compléments a Lexique Soqoṭri: les noms des parties du corps,” MAS, n.s. 4, pp. 85-108; “Notes sur le premier vocabulaire soqotri: le mémoire de Wellsted (1835),” Materiaux Arabes et Sudarabiques (MAS), n.s. 3, pp. 91-135 and n.s. 4, pp. 4-77; “Sokotri (langue),” Encyclopédie de l’Islam. Leiden: Brill (1996); “The Soqoṭri language: situation and presentation,” Proceedings of the 1st International Scientific Symposium on Socotra Island, Aden 24-28 March 1996. ʿAdan, University of ʿAdan (24-28 March, 1996), pp. 309-321; 23 octobre 1998, Table Ronde « Huitième journée de de la Société des Archéologues, Philologues et Historiens de l’Arabie (SAPHA) » à l’université d’Aix-en-Provence . Communication « La littérature orale en soqotri »; “The Modern South Arabian Languages” The Semitic Languages, ed. R. Hetzron. London: Routledge (1997), p. 378-423; Lonnet, Antoine. “The Soqotrī Language: Past, Present and Future,” in: First International Scientific Symposium on Socotra Island: Present and Future. Aden, 24-28 March 1996. ʿAdan, University of ʿAdan (24-28 March, 1996), pp. 297-308; V. Naumkin & V. Porkhomovsky. “Oral poetry in the Suquṭrān socio-cultural context,” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies Vol. 33, Papers from the thirty-sixth meeting of the Seminar for Arabian Studies. London, 18-20 July 2002.

Simeone-Senelle, “The Modern South Arabian Languages,” op. cit, p. 580. Similar constructions were also put forth in Wager (1953, 1959); see: Simeone-Senelle, “Soqotri dialectology,” op. cit., p. 5.

Ibid., p. 393.


Linguists of Suquṭrī have benefitted from the best available data in their attempts to

measure aboriginality on the island by way of a living language. However, the strength of this data has been used as evidence of the long-standing condition of the speakers, a fact which cannot be supported without equally strong outside evidence. As shown, these linguistic theories conformed to a high degree to contemporary ethnographic and anthropological studies which were, in and of themselves, of dubious worth in assessing the historical situation of autochthonous Suquṭrans. Modern linguistic studies have aligned themselves with similarly “primitivizing” pursuits. In the absence of better historical data sets as evidence - data which is not likely to be forthcoming - this linguistic assessment of the history of Suquṭrī aborigines is likely to remain secondary to anthropological and historical reconstructions.
Historians (20th century - Present)
The interest in investigating the given historical narrative of Suquṭrā has waxed

increasingly in the past decade, if only as a consequence of the relative inattention paid to such an endeavor previously. As illustrated, much of the academic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries which aimed to portray the historical situation of Suquṭrā did so by means of quasianthropological, informant-based techniques or a less-than-critical reliance upon a narrow range of textual sources from which a narrative of successive population replacements and spheres of economic domination emerged.
No better example of such an approach is given than in the Encyclopaedia of Islam vol. I

article produced by Tkastch, op. cit. While exhaustively researched in as regards the written record from the Greek sources, and generously supplied with references to the Egyptian and other ancient mentions of Suquṭrā from Near Eastern literatures, it is severely limited by the shortcomings of the contemporary literature, notably, a drastic over-reliance on Wellsted’s


expedition, privileging its information as “more accurate” than others on all accounts 98. He is entirely unfamiliar with the Arabic sources, having to rely on translated accounts for his references within his own text. 99 The history of the island is given in a violently succinct summary at one point:

“al-Idrīsī... connects (i.48, Jaubert, Paris, 1836) the story of Alexander’s campaign into Arabia on account of its wealth of frankincense, with Sokotrā, which was colonised with Greeks on the advice of Aristotle on account of the excellent aloes growing there. The Christianisation of the island may have been effected by the Abyssinian rulers who conquered Arabia for a time... When Persian civilization gained the upper hand in Arabia and after it Islam, Christianity was gradually driven out of the island.” 100

In addition to this perfunctory characterization of Suquṭran annalistic history, Tkastch

continually references the political and commercial isolation of the island. Suquṭrā’s political allegiance in Tkatsch’s view has “always” 101 belonged to Arabia, falling under the clientage of various Arabian powers, including Ḥaḍramī kings, Sassanian proxies and the Sulṭān of Musqaṭ. Particular emphasis is placed upon both the “scant reference” to trade in the classical authors and the fact that “Sokotrā is shut off from the main traffic-routes of the world and is only used for provisioning by Indian traders and whale fishers,” or that, “[th]e island was little known in modern times on account of its position and lack of harbours.” 102 Regrettably, little correction was made to these statements in the EI2 article by Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle, who refers the reader to Tkastch’s summary for the history of Suquṭrā, her authorial license directed instead


Tkastch, p. 479 Tkastch., see especially p. 478 and the mentions of al-Hamdānī and al-Idrīsī, especially. Ibid., p. 478. Ibid., p. 479. Ibid., 480






toward in the linguistic advances made during the 20th century103. One might infer from this that the Encyclopaedia of Islam’s view of Suquṭrān history had remained unmoved for more than 50 years - either a tacit critique of the quality of the previous 50 years’ worth of historical inquiry, or an exposition of the lack of concern with developing the historical record from the renowned linguist charged with writing the entry.
Such was the situation at the beginning of the 21st century. However, two historians have

distinguished themselves for their originality in the study of Suquṭrā in the last decade away from this normative narrative of population replacement and isolationism. Serge Elie identified the problem facing the study of Suquṭrā as belonging to a:

“discursive practice that prevailed during this historical period... a form of incestuous borrowing and modifying of information without attribution, which constructed its object of knowledge in an allusive way. This bequeathed a puzzling intellectual legacy that has preoccupied successive generations of researchers on Suquṭrā, as answers to the most basic questions took on the character of solving a puzzle of a thousand fragments.” 104

The “symbolic appropriation” 105 of the island - both in whole and along lines analogous

to Naumkin’s ethnospheres - became, Elie argues, part of the narrative generated by European scholarship. Instead of the “genealogical reductionism” of Suquṭran identity and the assertion of long-term isolation experienced by the island - theories propounded by earlier generations of ethnologists and linguists - Elie instead seeks to expand such definitions to include a “human mosaic” of diversity and movement, as was ignored in Tkastch and ethnographers:

“[M]igrant labourers to the incense fields from the Sabean Kingdom; aromatic plant cultivators escaping the fallout of the wars among the ancient kingdoms of the South Arabian mainland; Greek economic settlers escaping poverty in their homeland and later converting themselves into monastic Christian missionaries; Indian pirates raiding the ships traversing the Indian Ocean; Nestorian and Jacobite Christians from the Arabian Peninsula

Oman, G.; Simeone-Senelle, M.-Cl. "Suḳuṭra." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. University of California Los Angeles. 19 June 2011 <http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_COM-1110>

Elie, “South Arabia’s Strategic Gateway and Symbolic Playground,” op. cit., p. 135. Ibid., p. 136.



on proselytizing missions; Abyssinian Christians fleeing from the overthrow of their empire in South Arabia by the Persians in the sixth century AD; Islamic proselytizers from the Ibadi sect of Oman in the eighth century AD; East African indentured labourers and slaves; Omani sailors from the port of Sohar; nomadic pastoralists displaced by the internecine conflicts between the bellicose Sultanates of Hadramawt; itinerant peddlers of assorted goods from Europe and elsewhere; seasonal pearl divers from the Gulf turned permanent residents; Somali fishermen and stevedores; conquering Mahri tribes who finally installed the Bin Afrir dynastic Sultanate late in the fifteenth century that lasted until 1967; and so on.” 106

In a similar vein of dispelling the mythological underpinnings of Suquṭran isolation,

Zoltán Biederman undertook a complete reevaluation of Suquṭrā’s written historical record, striving to include a wider variety of materials dating from late Antiquity, particularly those of Persian provenance. 107 Counter to the claims of large-scale civilizational replacement during the Persian period of the Kisrās, Zoltán highlights the religious and trade contacts between the Monophysite and Jacobite communities along the Persian Gulf - a situation which would negate large-scale Abyssinian influence during this time, as argued by some 108 - and the flourishing trade contacts that existed between a chain extending from Suquṭrā through Oman, Mesopotamia and Syria, a theory advanced by Pigulewskaia.109
While these are welcome additions in efforts toward constructing a more holistic portrait

of Suquṭrā’s historical situation politically, religiously and commercially, they do little to help us advance propositions for future studies of island population dynamics. In essence, these newer studies add to our understanding of the access Suquṭrans would have had to outside populations, but do not provide a new framework with which to study population dynamics or by which to


Ibid., pp. 139-40.


Zoltán Biederman. “An Island Under the Influence: Suquṭrā at the Crossroads of Egypt, Persia, and India from Antiquity to the Early Modern Age,” Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea, ed. Ralph Kautz. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz Verlag (2010), pp. 9-24.

See Tkastch, p. 479 for such connections.


Nina Pigulewskaia. “Byanz auf den Wegen nach Indien,” Aus der Geschichte des byzantinischen Handels mit dem Orient vom 4 bis 6. Hahrhundert. Überarbeitet deutsche Ausgabe. Berlin, Amsterdam: Akademie-Verland, Hakkert (1969), p. 132; c.f. Zoltán, op. cit., pp. 23.


come to a closer understanding of “aboriginal” populations; the older, larger and still distorted framework of the 19th and 20th century unfortunately remains. Genetic Reality of Suquṭrā’s Aboriginal Population (21st cent.)  
Absent attempts to distinguish between Suquṭrans based on blood type and experiments of modified phrenology, there seen to have been few attempts at establishing a scientific basis for the assumption of a recognized, genetically distinct population on Suquṭrā that could be labeled as “aboriginal.” Previous to the 21st century, the determination of this distinct “aboriginal” ethnic makeup was based nearly entirely on such outdated racial-anthropological practices as phrenology, blood type tests, geographical determinism, and ethnographers’ reliance on local folklore as a means of filling in the gaps in the historical record stretching back centuries.
The explosion of genetic research in the last decade of the 20th century has allowed the

field of ethnography to expand far beyond these methods in both scope and accuracy, and during that time the Yemen as a whole has been the subject of no small amount of genetic research due largely to the prevalence of “discrete communities” therein110; such discrete communities show high degrees of endogamy and internally focused cultural, political and commercial systems. Suquṭrā’s population was listed as one of 23 such discrete communities in Birenbaum-Carmeli’s survey of the “ethnicization” of genetic studies, an attempt to demonstrate the gene’s new role in, “determining, legitimis[ing] or destablis[ing] existing [political] power relations”, and in identifying and classifying “population isolates” in the service of state or independent interests.111 The “ethnicization” of which Biernbaum-Carmeli speaks concerning the Yemen is


Birenbaum-Carmeli, D. “On the Prevalence of Population Groups in the Human-Genetics Research Literature,” Politics and the Life Sciences, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Mar., 2004), pp. 34-41; p. 35.

Ibid., p. 36.


not to be understated. The Yemen’s results in the “Genetics-score” and “Mutation-score” tables112 - an equation expressing the number of articles written about a given country with the word “genetics” or “mutation”, respectively, divided by the country’s total population - place the country into the top third of all statistically significant results: the Yemen ranks twenty-second out of sixty statistically-significant countries for its “Genetics-score”, and seventeenth out of sixty statistically-significant countries for its “Mutation score”. For comparison, the discrete community of “Australian Aborigines” ranked twentieth in Genetics-scores and third in Mutation-score; the Basques, another ethnic group for which the term “aborigine” is often applied113, have received lesser levels of scientific attention, ranking twenty-fifth in Geneticsscores and forty-third in Mutation-scores; island groups with small populations considered as “aboriginal”, such as Ibiza, ranked along similar lines: nineteenth in Genetic-scores and thirtyninth in Mutation-scores. 114
For all the interest shown in Suquṭrā as home to an “aboriginal” population it is tempting

to conclude that the results for the Yemen as a whole would correspond - or even be exceeded by - statistics for Suquṭrā as a whole, falling in line with the frequencies of the noted aboriginal populations named above. However, Suquṭrā itself was not scored as statistically-significant for any of the tables in Birenbaum-Carmeli’s study. Indeed, the use of such a category in Birenbaum-Carmeli’s study must come into question considering the complete lack of genetic

Biernbaum-Carmeli, op. cit., pp. 38-9. Four such Tables were made available in the study: 1) Population-score, 2) Genetics-score, 3) Population-score and genetics score ranks for more affluent groups [ostensibly as a control for more modernized countries which have the resources to influence substantial population studies at home] and 4) “Mutation-score” . The methodology for each score can be found on pp. 35-6.

See: Harold J. E. Peake, “The Aboriginal Population of Europe,” Man, Vol. 46, (Jan. - Feb., 1946), pp. 23-24; Peter Forster, “Ice Ages and the mitochondrial DNA chronology of human dispersals: A Review,” PTRSLBS 2004 February 29; 359 (1442): 255–264; Michael P. H. Stumpf, David B. Goldstein, “Genealogical and Evolutionary Inference with the Human Y Chromosome,” Science, New Series, Vol. 291, No. 5509 (Mar. 2, 2001), pp. 1738-1742.

Biernbaum-Carmeli, op. cit., pp. 38-39.


research conducted on Suquṭrā previous to his study, in addition to the fact that no relevant cultural and ethnic atlases available so much as lists “Suquṭrī” as a viable ethnic group.115 Despite the interest in Suquṭrā as an Edenic habitat teeming with biodiversity, the imperative to study native human biodiversity had not yet been grasped by 2004. With this in mind, it is instructive that Biernbaum-Carmeli conceives of Suquṭrā’s human population along “ethnicized” lines despite the complete lack of statistically-significant genetic research or acceptance from the wider academic community for such nomenclature for Suquṭrans. Conceptualization of Suquṭrā’s ethnicized “aboriginal” population had reached such universal consensus within the narrow group that had studied the island that Suquṭrā’s “aborigines” were included in a study on human genetics despite the fact that independent actual genetic research had been performed to verify the veracity of this “aboriginal” group!
No studies concerning Suquṭrā as an object of discrete, human population-level genetics

were conducted on the island until 2008. At that time, a team of geneticists working under the direction of Viktor Cerny endeavored to assert “a clear hypothesis for the initial settlement of the island” and to address hypotheses that centered on the island of Suquṭrā in particular, and the Bāb al-Mandab region in general, as a probable locus for the first Exodus of humans from Africa.116 They found that there is a sound basis for conceiving of Suquṭrā’s modern population as having an aboriginal basis: “Almost half of the Soqotri haplotypes (8/17) have never been

See: al-Fārūqī, Ismāʿīl R. and Lois Lamyā al-Fārūqī. The Cultural Atlas of Islam. New York: MacMillan Publishing (1986); ed. Richard V. Weekes. Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey (2nd Edition, Revised and Expanded). Maps: J. Coffman; Consultant: P.R. Stewart. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (1984). Furthermore, despite Biernbaum-Carmeli’s study, the publication of Muslim Cultures Today in 2006 still bore no mention of Suquṭrī as an ethnic denomination. See: ed. Coughlin, Kathryn M. Muslim Cultures Today: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (2006).

Cerny, V. et al., “Out of Arabia - The Settlement of Island Suquṭrā as Revealed by Mitochondrial and Y Chromosome Genetic Diversity,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Vol. 138 (2009), pp. 439-447; p. 440. The hypothesis about the “first Exodus” has been proposed by both Metspalu et al. (2004) and Macaulay et al. (2005). cf. Cerny, op. cit., p. 440.


detected in neighboring regions of southwestern Asia or Africa [...] Moreover, two of the unique haplotypes are quite common in Suquṭrā [...] occurring at 23% of 15%” 117; by comparison, scientific theory has postulated that groups displaying 15% genetic homogeneity along haplotypes meet the requirements of distinguishing themselves as “discrete populations” - that which Biernbaum-Carmeli conceives of as a politically viable “ethnicity”. 118 The combination of significant evidence for a genetic “founder’s effect” proving internal demographic expansion along two discrete, autochthonous “clades” - a group consisting of a founding organism and all its descendants - establishes a clear genetic differentiation between the island and “neighboring populations from Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Near East or India.” 119 In terms of the genetic types which combined to factor into the overall genetic picture of Suquṭrā, seven out of the seventeen haplotypes identified correlate - either directly or one mutation away - with haplotypes reported in Arabia; one haplotype is unique, and is two mutational steps away from the last remaining haplotype which has an exact match in Ethiopia. Such genetic data is “consistent with a Neolithic expansion from the north,” with the possibility of earlier genetic input for these lineages from the African continent, thus explaining the Ethiopian element.120 The study gives an estimate of the current population of the island as having migrated at a maximum of 11,000 years ago, with measurable expansion occurring circa 3,000 years ago during the mid117

Cerny et. al, op. cit., p. 442.


See: R.C. Lewontin. "The Apportionment of Human Diversity," Evolutionary Biology, vol. 6 (1972) pp. 391– 398; Per Erik Jorde, Stefan Palm, Nils Ryman. “Estimating genetic drift and effective population size from temporal shifts of dominant gene marker frequencies,” Molecular Ecology, Vol. 8. (1999), pp. 1171 - 1178; D. Hinds, et al. “Whole-Genome Patterns of Common DNA Variation in Three Human Populations,” Science, New Series, Vol. 307, No. 5712 (Feb. 18, 2005), pp. 1072-1079.

Cerny et. al., op. cit., pp. 443-4. For comparison, another small island group with an assumed autochthonous population - the Canary Islands - is thought to have had no fewer than 6 foundational clades; see: Rando et al. (1999).

Ibid., pp. 444-5.


Holocene period (from ~ 8000 BCE to present).121
In spite of the groundbreaking work which Cerny et al. undertook there remain shades of

the underlying academic narrative which contains problematic assumptions concerning the aboriginal character of the island’s population after this late Holocene migration. A reference to the island’s “long-term isolation” echoes previous literature - both the Arabic and the academic studies - although this term and its implications are never fully expanded upon. Furthermore, while accounting for the fact that this “isolation” has led to the propagation of “the myths and legends which have enveloped the island from earliest times” 122 the authors characterize the “prehistory and origins of the aboriginal Soqotri population” as “not well understood”:

It is believed on the island that over time the aboriginal Suquṭrans were driven away from the lusher areas of the island (areas of superior pasture where water and soil permitted the cultivation of finger-millet and date-palms). Thus the well-watered plains and the northern foothills of the Haghier, the valleys lying south of the same mountains, and the more accessibly parts of the mountains became owned or controlled by the incoming groups. Oral history and tradition associates this with the arrival or greater numbers of powerful Mahrah (and associated tribes) once their Sultan began to rule and tax-farm the island (15th century onwards) but also with depredations of pirates in the region over the centuries (exact period unknown). The original mountain dwellers became confined to the drier fringes of the mountains and plateaus and the more inaccessible areas.123

The basis for this account of Suquṭrā’s history, while very much in line with the previous

literature, deserves increased scrutiny. The article’s first citation of a historical event succeeding the identification of Holocene human differentiation on Suquṭrā is the 1480 CE establishment of al-ʾAfrariyyah suzerainty over the island. Likewise, precedence is given to the “oral history and tradition” 124 of modern - i.e. 19th century and beyond - island informants, checking against a historical record that was a complete construction of botanists, adventurers, architects, and

Cerny et al., op. cit., p. 444. Ibid., p. 439 Ibid., p. 440. Ibid., p. 440





ethnographers who fashioned their arguments according to what what has been demonstrated as problematic methodological procedure. It is this sort of glossing over of vast periods of Suquṭran history and injudicious use of the modern historical narrative that has routinely and unproblematically added to the propagation of the skewed portrait of this aboriginal population, as shown in Elie, Peutz and Zóltan and continues even when the reality of autochthonous communities directly contradicts stories of 7th century population replacement as advocated by Doe.
Additionally, the historical-geographical characterization of this aboriginal population is

in need of further consideration. Following the previous studies, Cerny et al. uncritically relate the “mythic” journey of the aboriginal from the “well-watered”, low-lying, “accessible” areas of the island to the “drier”mountainous regions and “fringes” of the island at the impetus of invading groups associated with the Mahrah, a characterization which is essentially a page out of Naumkin’s book and a critique which could be drawn directly from Guha’s article. Despite the fact that the genetic research was conducted on “all main areas of the island” - including population centers in Diksam, the Haghier mountains, Qalansiyah, Momi, the Noged plain and “several very small hamlets distributed throughout the island” 125 - no data were published about the frequency of the haplotypes based on the geographical area from which the samples were drawn. As such, we have no way of knowing if the autochthonous marker haplotypes occur with greater frequency in the assumed “aboriginal strongholds” of the high mountains and fringe grazing areas, which would confirm the oral accounts of aboriginal flight, as propounded by the authors.


Cerny et. al., p. 440.


With this in mind, it is clear that, despite the advances of genetic research and improved

histories of Suquṭrā which could move the narrative and state of the field forward, we still rely on the oral histories collected in the 19th century, traditional and mythological formulations of the island’s inhabitants and outdated modes of historical discourse as serviceable and desirable indicators of internal population displacements and movements for Suquṭran aborigines. Reevaluating the data by way of Guha’s critique is one such way of breaking through the “incestuous borrowing” of narrative and “allusive”, unproductive mode of thinking that has dominated the study of Suquṭran aboriginality; however, this this work is primarily useful as a device to identify the problematics and not for correcting the issue. With the data provided by Cerny et. al., there is a future available for fruitful investigation into the aboriginal community of Suquṭrā once again, which incorporates the better elements of the previous literature. One such approach might incorporate the methods of Edwin Wilmsen, the ethnographer of the Kalahari San people, who advocated the rejection of ahistorical pictures of aborigines as primitive and outside the realm of historical studies. Building from the (sometimes dated) linguistic studies available by Bent, Müller, Simeone-Senelle and Lonnet and the historical studies by Elie and Biedermann, there is cause to reexamine the state of human interaction which occurred between Suquṭrā and mainland locales in the pre-European period, especially the al-Afrariya migration mentioned by Cerny et. al. and what came before in efforts to build a more historical picture which supercedes the limits of the current scholarship.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful