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Jeremy Farrell ARAB 250, Spring 2011 Final Paper

Constructions of Aboriginal Suqu rā

# Autochthonous or indigenous communities - especially those outside of Oceania - have

enjoyed increased academic exposure over the last 50 years 1 , 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: ʿ Abd al-Kur ī, Samḥā, and

the main island of Suqu r ā. Suqur ā 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

1 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).

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

3 Oman, G.; Simeone-Senelle, M.-Cl. "Su u ra." 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 Suqu rans, 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 Soqo ra’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 Suqu ran

4 J. Tkatsch. “Sko r āE.J. Brill’s First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936, ed. M.Th. Houtsma

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).

[et al.]. Leiden ;

5 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.

6 Tkatsch, “Soko rā”, op. cit. p. 477.

7 Nathalie Peutz. “Shall I Tell You What Suqu r ā 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/



aboriginality and its evolution. What is more important than this survey, however, is the

underlying question of how the “aboriginal” Suqu ran 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 Suqu r āns . It is contended that despite the

advancements in the last decade the study of Suqu ran 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 Suqu r ā, 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

8 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,


9 Sumit 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

10 Ibid., p. 423.

11 Ibid., pp. 424-5.

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

13 Guha, p. 427.

14 Guha, op. cit., p. 430.


vestigial isolation Edwin Wilmsen 15 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 Suqu r ā 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 Suqu r ā 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 Suqu r ā’s


Constructing Suqu rā : Ethnographic, Linguistic and Historical Categories

! What follows is an attempt to lay out the record as it reflects the interest in Soqo ra’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 EI 1 “Su u r ā”, op. cit. Each section will trace historical

trends and developments in the consciousness and portrayal of aboriginal Suqu rans, with the

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


16 Guha, op. cit., p. 434.


aim of generating a set of methodological themes and shared vocabularies used to evaluate

aboriginal Suqu ran 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 Suqu r ā, 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 pre-

modern 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 Suqu rā - South Arabia, the Indian Ocean, Africa etc. - may

help us understand contemporary assumptions of ethnic realities as relates to Suqu r ā’s

17 This is an important distinction illuminated by Chase Robinson in his book, Islamic Historiography. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press (2003), p. xx.

19 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


! The first of the geographers to write about Suqu r ā was the 10th century scholar,

antiquarian and genealogist al-Hamd ān ī (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 al-

Iklī l 20 , the eighth book of which was a compendium of the human and monumental history of the

Arabian peninsula, ifat Jaz ī rat al- ʿ Arab. 21 al-Hamd ān ī was a native of the Yemen who had also

spent appreciable periods of time in Mekkah and Baghd ād, with spent the greater part of his life

in Raydah (22.4 miles NNW of San ʿ āʾ ) where he composed his works under the patronage of the

provincial elite Ab ū Ja ʿ far aḥḥāk.

! al-Hamd ān ī couches his description of Suqu r ā in very broad geographical terms and very

precise ethnic considerations. The spatial element of Suqu r ā’s place within the book connects it

to the coasts of the Yemen, ʿ Umān, the lands of Barbar ā 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-Hamd ān ī felt comfortable placing his characterization of

the island. While Suqu r ā and other surrounding islands (Furs ān and Zayla ʿ ) are described as “in

19 See: Löfgren, O. "al-Hamd ān ī, Abū Mu ammad al- asan b. A mad b. Ya ʿ ḳū b b. Y ū suf b. D āw ū d b. Sulaymān h ̲ i 'l-Dumayna al-Bak īlī al-Arabī, often named Ibn h ̲ i/Abi 'l-Dumayna or Ibn al- Ḥā ʾ ik." 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>; Y ū suf Mu ammad ʻ Abd Allāh. al-Hamd ā n ī Lis ā n al-Yaman : dir ā s ā t fī dhikr ā hu al-alfī yah. an ʻāʾ : J āmiʻat an ʻā ʾ (1986).

20 Al- asan ibn A mad ibn Yaʻq ū b ibn al-H āʼ ik al-Hamd ān ī. al-Iklī l, al-juz ʼ al-th ā min : yata ammanu ma ḥā fid al- Yaman wa-mas ā nidah ā wa-dafāʼ inah ā wa-qu ṣū rahā wa-mar ā th ī ḥ am īr wa-al-qub ū r ī yā t, akhrjahu ilá al- ab ʻ wa- aḥḥ aa al-aghlāṭ-- wa- ʻ allaqa aw āsh īhi al-lughaw īyah al- Ā b Anistās M ār ī al-Karmilī al-Baghd ād ī. Baghd ād:

Mabaʻ at al-Sury ān al-K āth ū līk īyah (1931).

21 Al- asan ibn A mad ibn Yaʻq ū b ibn al-H āʼ ik al- Hamd ān ī. ifat Jaz ī rat al- ʻ Arab, ed. Ibr āh īm Kh ū r ī. Beirut: D ār al-Mashriq (1993).


proximity to the coasts of the Yemen”, those engaged in trade are abash. 22 However, those

African elements are not drawn to the island due to population affinity but commercial interest.

While Suqu r ā itself is described as a Nubian (barbar ā) island, al-Hamd ān ī portrays its main

function as a way station between ʿ Adan 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” (muq ā til) of the Mahrah

tribe. The true origin of the population, however, lay in somewhere in the past: al-Hamd ān ī

relates that the Suqu r ī Mahrah understood the origins of the island’s population as a detachment

of Byzantines (qawm al-Rū m) who were sent to the island by Kisr ā; it is difficult to determine

whether this is meant to indicate one of the S ās ānid rulers Kisr ā Anū shirw ān (531-79 CE) or

Kisr ā Aparw īz (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-s ā kan ū hum wa-tana ṣṣ ara maʿ hum baʿ uhum). al-Hamd ān ī

also presents a competing tradition, known from the people of ʿ Adan, who deny that any R ū m

ever entered the island saying, rather, that it was inhabited by a monastic community

(rah ā binah), which subsequently died out, to be replaced by the tribes of Mahrah and al-Shurr āh,

the latter becoming the more numerous over time. When Islam came to the island ( aharat fī-h ā

22 For an understanding of the implications of this term, see: Ullendorff, E.; Trimingham, J.S.; Beckingham, C.F.; Watt, W. Montgomery; Ed(s). " aba sh , aba sh a." 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>

23 For an understanding of the implications of this term, see: Becker, C.H. "Bar 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?


da ʿ wat al-islā m), it prospered but was ruthlessly suppressed by the non-Muslim Shurr āh 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-S ū q.

! al-Hamd ān ī 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 barbar ā, but no further mention of African character is given. Despite this, strong

trade contacts persisted between Suqu r ā and the African mainland, but the account as it is

presented is too weak to substantiate a claim that the reference to Suqu r ā as barbar ā 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 R ū m or South Arabian

tribes that was, in essence, a colonial enterprise. It is instructive of al-Hamd ān ī’s view that

Suqu r ā, 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-Hamd ān ī’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 Rū m, or the

non-Muslim Sharru āh elements killing off the Muslim converts in symbolically complete form.

The monastic group rendered by the ʿ Adan 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 Suquran population,

was to become a hallmark of later Arab geographers’ recounting of the events that led to the

contemporary understanding of Suqu r ī demographics and foundational communities.

! On the heels of al-Hamd ān ī came the Baghd ād-born al-Mas ʿ ū d ī (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 Kitā b Akhbā r al-zam ā n and Kitā b Mur ū j al-dhahab wa-ma ʿ ā din 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 Suqu r ā. As a probable Sh īʿ ī 25 , he might

have been welcome in the lands held by the Zayd ī imamate of the Yemen, which had been

established in 897 CE; however, no independent verification of such a journey to the Yemen is


! Like al-Hamd ān ī, Mas ʿ ū d ī conceives of the island as intimately connected to ʿ Adan and

the coast of Yemen and, more remotely, the Red Sea (ba r al-Qulzum), and connections are also

drawn to the East as far as China. His account of Suqu r ā, however, appears in the midst of a

long digression about the kings of the A b āsh, possibly, like al-Hamdān ī, establishing a vestigial

link between Suqu r ā and the African mainland. The story of the settlement of the island also

echoes al-Hamd ān ī’s in that the island was caused to be inhabited, this time with Alexander the

24 Ab ī al-asan ʻ Alī ibn al-usayn ibn ʻAli al-Mas ʻū di. Mur ū j al-dhahab wa-ma ʻā din al-jawhar, tan īf al-raḥḥālah al-kab īr wa-al-mu ʾ arrikh al-Jalīl Ab ī al-asan ʻ Alī ibn al- usayn ibn ʻ Ali al-Mas ʻū di bi-taq īq Mu ammad Mu y ī al-D īn ʻ Abd al- amīd, 2 vols. Cairo: Maktabat al-Tijār īyah al-Kubr ā (1948). For a reconstruction of Mas ʿ ū d ī’s bibliography and the contents of individual works, see Pellat, Ch. "al-Mas ʿ ū d ī, Abu 'l- asan ʿ Alī b. al- usayn." 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://

25 See Tarif Khalidi, Islamic Historiography: The Histories of al-Mas ʿ ū d ī. 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 (jam ā ʿ ah min al-yū n ā n ī yī n) from his hometown (Stagira)

to settle the island in order to profit from Suqu ran aloe ( abr). Unlike al-Hamd ān ī’s account,

however, this sortie arrived to find that Suqu r ā was settled by Indians who were in possession of

a great idol of illustrious reputation (kā n lil-hind bi-h ā ṣ anmun ʿ a ẓī mun fa-naqala dh ā lika al-

anmu fī akhb ā ri ya ṭū l dhikruh ā ) and subsequently overthrew the ruler. By Mas ʿ ū d ī’s account the

Greeks virtually eliminated any trace of the previous Indian civilization, although the phrase

“intermingled amongst themselves” (tan ā sala man bi-al-jaz ī rati min al-yū n ā n ī yī na fī -h ā ) may

still leave room for a secondary population on the island. Eventually, the island’s population

Christianized (tana ṣṣ ara) after the passing of al-Iskandar, but the underpinnings and outward

expression of the Greek civilizational structure remained. At the time of Mas ʿ ū d ī’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

[Suqu r ā].” 26 The contemporary Greek inhabitants are said to be like those R ū m from Shuw ān ī

who make their living based on piracy of Muslim seafarers (kam ā yaq a ʿ a al-r ū mu fī al-Shuw ā n ī

ʿ alā al-muslim ī na fī al-ba ri al-r ū m ī).

! The overtones of civilizational replacement are much starker and more clearly laid out in

Masʿ ū di than in al-Hamd ān ī, 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”. Mas ʿ ū d ī did not record the presence of

26 The Arabic reads here: wa-laysa fī al-dunyā (wa-Allā hu a ʿ lamu) maw aʿ un fīh ī qawmun min al-yū n ā n īyī na ya ẓū na ans ā bahum lam yudā khilhum fī ans ā bihim r ū miyyun wa-lā ghayru-hum ghayr ahli h ā dhihi al-jaz īrah.


any Muslims or South Arabian tribes, perhaps subordinating his report to al-Hamd ān ī’s on the

basis of the latter’s clearer appellations for the communities found on Suqu r ā and the former’s

reliance on more obviously mythical origin reports. 27 Mas ʿ ū d ī does, however, introduce the

important trope of myth into the accounts of Suqu r ā 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 Mas ʿ ū d ī’s report ends with an allusion to

other “wondrous accounts” (akhb ā r ʿ ajī ba) to be found in previous, now lost books. The

inclusion of supra-natural details - though in more specific form - will figure prominently in later


! The record after Mas ʿ ū d ī 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-Idr īs ī’s Nuzhat al-mushtā q fī ikhtir ā q al- ā fā q 28 and

Y āq ū t’s al-Aʻ lā m fī Kitā b Mu ʿ ajam al-Buld ā n 29 and it is indeed thin-sown. What is of most use

to us in these descriptions is the continued characterization of Suqu r ā as identification of

existing tribes, their characteristics and known affinities with Suqu r ā.

27 Suqu r ā 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.

28 al-Shar īf Al-Idr īs ī. Nuzhat al-mushtā q fī ikhtir ā q al-ā fā q, ed. Henri Pérès; Reinhart Pieter Anne Dozy; M.J. de Goeje. Algiers: Bibliothèque de l'Institut d'études supérieures islamiques d'Alger (1957).

29 Al-Shaykh al-Imām Shih āb al-D īn Ab ī ʿ Abd Allah Y āq ū t b. ʿ Abd Allah al- amaw ī al-R ū mī al-Baghd ād ī, al-Aʻ lā m fī Kitā b Mu ʿ ajam al-Buld ā n, iʻ d ād wa-taq īq ʻ Abd al- usayn al-Shabastar ī. Beirut: D ār I y āʾ al-Tur āth al- ʻ Arab ī



! Ab ū ʿ Abdallah Mu ammad b. Mu ammad b. ʿ Abdallah ibn Idr īs ʿ Alī bi-Amr Allah al-

Idr īs ī (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 sunn ī Najāḥī (fl. 1021-1156) and Sulaymān ī (fl. 1069-1173)

kingdoms of the northern portions of Tih āmah and the sh īʿ ī Sulay ḥī (fl. 1047-1138) kingdom of

Sanʿ āʾ and the southern highlands serving as a proxies for the larger Ayy ū bid-Faimid struggle at

that time. 31

! Geographically, al-Idr īs ī identifies Suqu r ā as falling within the sphere of influence of

Mirb āṭ, a city located in modern Oman and geographically contiguous with the traditional

heartland of the Mahrah tribes. Besides this demographic affinity to Suqu r ā, Mirb āṭ was also

heavily involved with the frankincense trade and a natural port of some distinction, making it a

natural trading partner for Suqu r ā. 32 The mention of Mirb āṭ within Idrīs ī’s work comes during a

long digression depicting the distances between cities on the Yemeni mainland in general and the

30 He is said to have been born in Quruba, but biographical details to his life are scant. See the EI 2 article: "al-Idr īs ī, Ab ū ʿ Abd Allāh Mu ammad b. Mu ammad b. ʿ Abd Allāh b. Idr īs al- ʿ Ā lī bi-amr Allāh, called also al-Shar īf al- Idr ī s ī ." 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://

31 For a study of the interactions between the varying factions during the middle of the 12th century before the Ayy ū bid 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.


32 Bosworth, C.E. "al-Mirb āṭ ." 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>


aramawt in particular. No direct mention of Suqu r ā is made - other than allusions to its aloes,

to which aramī aloe is compared unfavorably - but one may surmise its existence within al-

Idr īs ī’s description based upon the existing prospective of the the Bay of the Moon (ghubb al-

qamar) extending six-days’ travel from Sharmat al-Muqaddam to Mirb āṭ, at the end of which is

found a country “on which it is said there are found camels producing offspring (khalifā t)”. It is

clear from this passing mention that al-Idrīs ī 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 Suqu ran goods. Clearly, the advanced state of

trade being conducted in mainland Arabia at this time allowed for regular contact with Suqu r ā 33 ;

the regular trade of goods - if only the Suqu rī aloes mentioned - executed along these routes

allowed for the minute differentiation between the superior Suqu r ī abr and the lower grade

aramī imitations. Remote though the island may have been by al-Idr īs ī’s reckoning, the ready

availability of Suqu ran 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 ( aw ā ʾ if) of Yemenīs and ʿ Umān īs” in Sab ā 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 Suqu rans and their goods could have come into contact.

! Following al-Idr īs ī, the next significant mention of Suqu r ā occurs in Y āq ū t’s

monumental geographical, biographical and literary work Mu ʿ ajam al-Buld ā n. His travels were

renowned and took him from Alexandria to Balkh, as well as numerous trips to the Persian Gulf

33 Zoltán Biedermann. “An Island Under the Influence: Suqu r ā 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 K īsh in the service of his master ʿ Askar ibn al-Nar al- amaw ī, but apparently no

farther south than this. 34 The first mention of Suqu rā is found within his closing words of the

fifth chapter of Mu ʿ ajam al-Buld ā n, 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 Y āq ū t 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 ṣū ratan) 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

S ū mn āt - “which is for them (Indians) like Mekkah is for Muslims” - to the ar īḥ lands of China.

The sense of otherness which Y āq ū t 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” (aqw ā lan mufā witatan yaqda u fī ʿ aqli

dh ā kiruh ā ). 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, Sarand īb, K ū lam

and Suqu r ā. They are characterized as legion, places upon which “no one could ever count

except Allāh” (m ā lā yuḥṣī hu illā Allā h).

34 For a map of these travels, see: Gilliot, Cl. "Y āḳū t al-R ū mī." 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?

35 The Arabic here reads: kadh ā lika al-hindī wa yatasha ʿʿ abu min al-hind ī khuljā nun kath ī ratun illā anna akbaraha wa-a ʿ amuaha ba r al-fā risi wa-al-Qulzum.


! Y āq ū t’s actual description of Suqu r ā 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 Suqu rans themselves. 36 He quotes liberally from al-Hamd ān ī, using his

navigational headings to balad al-Zanj and the of the ba r al-zanj, in addition to the assertion

that those who are to be found on the island currently are Arab Christians. Mas ʿ ū d ī’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 (jam ā ʿ ah); 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 Suqu r ā. 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 Y āq ū t’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-Idr īs ī was able to render the land- and sea-bound

trade routes of the Yemen without a clear geographical picture of Suqu r ā itself.

! The last of the Arab geographers to supply us with an account of Suqu r ā’s population

before the modern period, Ab ū Bakr b. Mu ammad b. Mas ʿ ū d b. ʿ Alī b. Ibn Al-Mujāwir al-

Baghd ād ī al-Nays ābū r ī (d. 1291?) was also the most knowledgeable about South Arabia since the

36 The account in Ibn Qaṭṭā ʿ is likewise lifted wholesale from Y āq ū t’s account. See his Kitā b al-Abnī yā t al-asm āʾ wa-al-afʻāl wa-al-maṣā dir, taq īq wa-dirāsat A mad Mu ammad ʻ Abd al-D āyim. Cairo: D ār al-Kutub wa-al- Wathāʾ iq al-Qawmīyah, Markaz Taq īq al-Tur āth, (1999).


days of al-Hamd ān ī almost three centuries before. 37 A native of Khurās ān, 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 Y āq ū t, he was also an experienced traveller of

the Persian Gulf and had also undertaken commercial missions to K īsh. 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 Suqu ran 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 Suqu r ā in his Tar ī kh al-Mustabir 40 as falling within

the suzerainty of the Yemen ī mainland, making reference to the island in relation to other notable

locations as the ba r al-Qulzum, B āb al-Mandab, ʿ Adan and Zab īd. Ibn al-Mujāwir also records

29 As much is argued in the EI 2 article for ibn al-Mujāwir, but the gaps in his knowledge and his over-reliance on fantastic sources is also attested: “The author of Taʾ r ī kh al-Mustab ir 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-D īn Abu 'l-FatY ū suf b. Ya ʿ ḳū b b. Mu ammad al-Shayb ān ī al-Dimash ḳī." 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://

38 The most complete treatment of the likely origins of Ibn al-Mujāwir comes in G. Rex Smith’s essay “Ibn al- Mujāwir’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-Mustab ir to another Ibn al-Mujāwir, a native of Damascus (p. 86).

39 For commentary on the commercial and voyeuristic aspects of Ibn al-Mujāwir’s work, see G. Rex Smith: “Ibn al- Mujāwir 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.

40 Yusuf Ibn Yaʿ q ū b Ibn al-Mujāwir. T ā r ī kh al-Mustab ir. 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-Rū m al-

Malā ʿ ī n) that the island is guarded by the land of the Arabs (jaz ī ratun ma r ū satun bi-ar i al-

ʿ arb). 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 yuq ā l, the

common mythical discourse marker of Classical Arabic 41 : once at the beginning of his report and

once in to introduce the reports of al-Rū m al-Malā ʾ ī n. By Ibn al-Mujāwir’s accounting, Suqu r ā

was originally a point which marked the boundary between sea and land (wa kā nat suqu r ā m ā

bayna al-ba ri wa al-barr); eventually, God opened up the mouth of the sea which then rushed

to ʿ Adan, and then further into the Qulzum area, creating the ba r al-Qulzum with Suqu r ā now

becoming “an island within the waves of the sea”. In this way, Suqu r ā 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 Soqotr ī 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-D īn Sunqur, the mawlā of the Ayy ū bid ruler Ismā ʿ īl

ibn ughtakan (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.

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


ya ʾ khadha al-jaz ī rah). The sirah, however, proved too powerful for even such a strong invading


! 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 Suqu r ā 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 Suqu rans 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 Suqu r ā with a

civilizational mission - often in the form of commerce or religion - and eyes on its riches, but had

themselves been “Suqu ran-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

43 The Arabic here reads: fa-lamm ā qarib ū al-qawmu min al-jaz ī rati in amasat al-jaz ī ratu ʿ an ʿ a ī yū ni al-qawmi wa- ṣā r ū ṣāʿ id ī na mu dir ī na ṭā liʿ ī na wa-n ā zilī ni laylan wa-nah ā ran ayaman wa-layā lī fa-lam yajid ū lil-jaz ī rati assan wa-lā waq ʿ ū lil-jaz ī rati ʿ alā khabrin fa-radd ū r ā jiʿ ī n.


features of these reports is the colonizing impulse, easily seen in the original reports of al-

Hamd ān ī and Mas ʿ ū d ī, which were later repeated by Y āq ū t, and brought to a head with the Ibn

al-Mujāwir’s narration of an actual colonization attempt under the newly installed Ayy ū bid

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 Suqu r ā 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 Suqu r ā, 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

44 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.

45 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 Suqu r ā following the advent of the 16th century comes

from European sources. The first informed comment on the nature of the Suqu ran populace in

this period came from the Portuguese chronicler João de Barros (d. 1570), best known for his

work Décadas da Ásia 46 which detailed the Portuguese colonial experience in Asia. He describes

the people of Suqu r ā 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

46 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.


47 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 Suqu r ā 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).

48 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 Suqu ran 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 ʿ Adan in 1839 marked the transition to a new period of more intensive

charting of the Indian Ocean, for which Suqu rā 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 [Suqu r ā’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.”

49 Elie, Historical Genealogy, pp. 5-10.

50 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 Suqu r ā in the late 19th and early 20th century - the age typified by Guha’s Grant 53 -

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 Suqu r ā:

! “It happens that on this island

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

there dwells a people whose origin is lost in myth, and whose speech the

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

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

51 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

52 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.

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

54 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.

55 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 Suqu r ā’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 Suqu ran studies 59 , 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.

56 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.

57 Botting, op. cit. p. 55.

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

59 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 Suqu r ā 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 region 60 , 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 Suqu rans 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 Suqu r ā ascertained by means of archaeological findings. Therein, Doe - a trained architect -

argued for the existence of a highly developed and complex autochthonous society on Suqu r ā

that flourished with the frankincense trade until the 7th century under the stewardship of

aramī kings. 63 It was postulated that with the coming of Islam there occurred what resembled

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

61 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.

62 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.”

63 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 Suqu r ā’s society

remaining untouched and undeveloped until the present day.

! The 20th century’s capstone ethnographic work on Suqu rā was Island of the Phoenix by

Vitaly Naumkin 64 , 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 Suqu r ā. 65 With a geographic environment so isolated and unique, Suqu r ā

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 Suqu r ā. 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

64 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 Suqu rá : hun ā ka,

aythu ba ʻ athat al-ʻ anq āʼ , tarjamat ʻ Alī Ṣālial-Khalāq ī. ʻ Adan: J āmiʻ at ʻAdan [1999], pp. 1-122, ill.

65 Elie. “South Arabia’s Strategic Gateway and Symbolic Playground,” op. cit., p. 154.

66 Ibid., pp. 154-5.

67 Naumkin, Hunaka: Haythu ba ʿ that al ʿ Anq ā ʾ , p. 27-36.

68 Ibid., p. 59-64.

69 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 organization 72 , 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 large-

scale achievement. Likewise, increased attention to racial types populating Suqu r ā 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

70 See above, p. 4

71 Serge Elie. ‘Vitaly Naumkin: Portrait of Suqu r ā’s First Ethnographer’, Yemen Times, 13:622 (2003), p. 5.

72 Naumkin, op. cit., pp. 105-115.

73 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 Suqu ran context and its role in both marking and

cementing the abjection of inland-dwelling Suqu rans 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 Suqu r ā’s aboriginal community historically and


Linguists (19th cent. - Present)



“Associated with the search for the ethnic origin of Suqu rans 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 Suqu r ā, 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 Suqu r ā are of some use in considering the origins of that community, in that the

modern Suqu r ī language is itself a unique signifier of Suqu r ī identity. As a member of the

Modern South Arabian Languages (MSAL) group, Suqu r ī was the first to be discovered in

modern times by Wellsted and is an independent language related to five other still-surviving

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

75 Ibid., p. 339

76 Nathalie Peutz. “Shall I Tell You What Soqotra Once Was?, op. cit.

77 Serge Elie, “South Arabia’s Strategic Gateway and Symbolic Playground,” op. cit., p. 138.


sister languages - Mehr ī, Hars ū s ī, Baṭḥ ar ī, Hobyot, and Jibb ālī - as well as the Semitic languages

of Ethiopia, all of which share a common ancestor in Epigraphic South Arabian. 78 It is probably

modern Suqu r ī’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 Suqu r ī as an independent language, and

basing the reality of an ancient autochthonous Suqu r ī community on modern linguistic features

is itself a tenuous and tendentious conclusion.

! Besides the rudimentary compendium of Suqu r ī executed by Wellsted during his brief

visit in 1834, the first period after the European “discovery” of Suqu r ā saw very little in the way

of developing Suqu r ī linguistic studies. What work was done focused heavily on the Classical

canon 79 , a means employed to establish directly the nature of the original inhabitants of the

island. The hypothesis of Indian origins of Suqu rā’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

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

79 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.

80 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 Διοσκοριδα 81 ,#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 Suqu r ā’s name began to change sharply from this

accepted Sanskrit-Greek base, especially after the publication of Balfour’s On the Island of

Suqu r ā , which first asserted Suqu r ā’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

Suqu r ā’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 source 85 ; 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.

82 Tkatsch, op. cit., p. 477

83 E. Balfour, op. cit., p. 486 sqq.

84 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. Saba ʾ , col. 1405 sqq . C.f. Tkastch, op. cit. , p.


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


community both to the African mainland and Suqu rā 86 ; or a strong relation to South Arabian

languages, both living in dead, in the form of Mehr ī 87 and Minaeo-Sabaen 88 epigraphy,


! These new possible readings of Suqu r ā’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 Suqu ran 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 Suqu r ī - 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 Suqu ran language, framed the problem: “The Soko rī 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

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

87 Bittner. “Charakteristik der Sprache der Insel Suqu r ā,” Anz Wien; “Vorstudien zur Grammatik und zum Wū ortenbuche der Suqu r ī-Sprache, i. SBAK, Wien, clxxiii, 4, p. 193.

88 D.H. Müller. Die Mehri und Soqo ri 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 Suqu r ā 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.

90 Müller, op. cit., p. 480. Compare with his presentation of the characteristics of Mahr ī: 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://


conceive of a historical Suqu r ī 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 Suqu r ī. 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 Mahr ī tribes in the 15th century. 92 This explanation proved

to be eminently congruous with the ethnographic picture of Suqu rans 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 Mahr ī incursions of the

the late pre-colonial period.

! In the succeeding 50 years, linguistic studies of Suqu r ī 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

91 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 Suqu r ā Archipelago and the other Yemeni Islands 12-16, Dec. 2003, University of Aden, p. 5.

92 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).

93 Jahn c.f. Simeone-Senelle, “The Modern South Arabian Languages”, op. cit., p. 380; E. Wagner. “Der Dialekt von ʿ Abd al-Kur ī,” 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 Suqu r ā.

Efforts were spearheaded by Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle and Antoine Lonnet, with

Naumkin’s partner Viktor Porkhomovsky also publishing a study on Suqu r ī oral poetry. 95 Their

works have played a pivotal role in intensifying the connections between Suqu r ī and the Arabian

mainland, while also producing dialectology studies; at present, four dialect groups have been

identified on Suqu r ā, 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

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

95 Works dedicated to Suqu r ā include: Lexique Soqo ri: 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 Soqo ri: 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 Soqori language: situation and presentation,” Proceedings of the 1st International Scientific Symposium on Socotra Island, Aden 24-28 March 1996. ʿ Adan, University of ʿ Adan (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 Soqotr ī Language: Past, Present and Future,” in: First International Scientific Symposium on Socotra Island: Present and Future. Aden, 24-28 March 1996. ʿ Adan, University of ʿ Adan (24-28 March, 1996), pp. 297-308; V. Naumkin & V. Porkhomovsky. “Oral poetry in the Suqu r ān 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.

96 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.

97 Ibid., p. 393.


! Linguists of Suqur ī 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 Suqurans. 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 Suqu r ī aborigines is

likely to remain secondary to anthropological and historical reconstructions. !

Historians (20th century - Present)

! The interest in investigating the given historical narrative of Suqu r ā 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 Suqu rā did so by means of quasi-

anthropological, 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 Suqu r ā 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-Idr īs ī

connects (i.48, Jaubert, Paris, 1836) the story of Alexander’s campaign into Arabia on account

of its wealth of frankincense, with Sokotr ā, 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 Suqu ran annalistic history, Tkastch

continually references the political and commercial isolation of the island. Suqu r ā’s political

allegiance in Tkatsch’s view has “always” 101 belonged to Arabia, falling under the clientage of

various Arabian powers, including aramī kings, Sassanian proxies and the Sulṭān of Musqa.

Particular emphasis is placed upon both the “scant reference” to trade in the classical authors and

the fact that “Sokotr ā 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 EI 2 article by Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle, who refers the

reader to Tkastch’s summary for the history of Suqu r ā, her authorial license directed instead

98 Tkastch, p. 479

99 Tkastch., see especially p. 478 and the mentions of al-Hamd ān ī and al-Idr īs ī, especially.

100 Ibid., p. 478.

101 Ibid., p. 479.

102 Ibid., 480


toward in the linguistic advances made during the 20th century 103 . One might infer from this that

the Encyclopaedia of Islam’s view of Suqu r ān 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 Suqu