Socotra: Spectacular nature and distinctive handcrafts [Archives:2008/1153/Last Page]

May 8 2008
Numerous handcrafts are made from the master of trees, the palm tree: qaraqeer used to catch fish, the roofs of houses and scales.
Numerous handcrafts are made from the master of trees, the palm tree: qaraqeer used to catch fish, the roofs of houses and scales.
Distinctive ornamentation on wooden boxes.
Distinctive ornamentation on wooden boxes.
By: Nisreen Shadad
For The Yemen Times

While the Socotra archipelago has fairly rich endemic flora, bird fauna and marine biodiversity, the island group also is rich in traditional handcrafts, with approximately 615 crafters, 65 percent of whom are women and 35 percent are men.

Some 65 traditional handcrafts are available today on Socotra, in both coastal and rural areas, all virtually made from the numerous raw materials in the archipelago, the most important of which are the date palm tree, leather, wood, frankincense trees, the Dragon's blood tree, bones and horns.

A team headed by Amat Al-Bari Al-Adi, general deputy manager of research and studies at Yemen's General Organization of Antiquities and Museum, joined by researcher Abdulqader Al-Shaibani, Abdullah Noah, manager of antiquities on Socotra, artist Yaseen Ghalib and photographer Abdu Bajash, documented the traditional handcrafts of the Socotra archipelago in 2004 under the auspices of the Social Fund for Development and the General Organization for Antiquities and Museums.

Handcrafts from “the master of trees,” the date palm

The palm tree enjoys special status on Socotra due to its endless benefits and uses; thus, it's called the master. Seventy percent of the island's handcrafts are made from this astounding tree, including straw mats, baskets (scuttle or frail) for scales, cupboards, doors, dining mats, kitchenware, house roofs and shade arbors (areesh).

As Al-Adi explained, “Most doors of homes and yards are made of palm branches stripped of their leaves because it's low cost yet strong enough to protect their houses. From the leaves, they make baskets for scales, as well as mats with numerous uses, such as sitting or drying dates on them; however, Socotrans prefer storing and drying their dates in qirab (like a bottle, but made of leather; the plural of qirba). Further, they build the pillars of their homes out of palm trunks.”

Additionally, she noted that al-ashaj (the part where the date is affixed) is used to make qaraqeer, which are similar to fishing nets.

Holy goods

Holy goods are those used in worship traditions. In this regard, there are nine types of frankincense trees: Ameiro, Samaaneh, Kamham, Safha, Teif, Aheeb, Tiliah, Harar and Sibroo.

Harvest time for these holy products is in the fall. In the summer, frankincense trees are struck with a sharp instrument until a white sticky resin appears. After several days, hard granules of frankincense, or olibanum, form on the tree trunk.

The original lands for frankincense trees are Dafar; a Yemeni governorate and Socotra, but Socotran frankincense is the highest quality frankincense in Yemen.

Al-Adi notes, “The importance of frankincense on Socotra is due to its uses for occasions such as giving birth, eids, welcoming guests and on religious occasions such as the Prophet Mohammed's (pbuh) birthday.”

There are many interesting tales about the source of Socotran frankincense, the first of which is that a bird carried it on its wings from Al-Tibt (an area on Socotra), while another says that a lofty bird built a nest of cinnamon and various types of incense. According to Al-Adi, one can smell a sweet fragrance from its nest whenever it rains.

“Socotra once was considered the richest archipelago for gum trees, but they've become fewer due to harvesting their wood,” she noted.


Socotra natives consider aloe a holy product, calling it tayf. They gather it in August and September because it is during these two months that the weather becomes dry and goats find no other green plants except aloe. Pregnant goats often have an abortion when eating it.

“Aloe is used as a cure for many diseases such as tuberculosis and anemia. It's also used as a natural laxative,” Al-Adi pointed out.

Dragon's blood tree, another holy product

One of the most striking plants on Socotra is this umbrella-shaped tree. The red sap secreted from its trunk is used both as a medicine and as a dye.

Spinning thread and weaving shimal

One of the island's most important traditional handcrafts is shimal, a woolen cloth. Crafters create various types and sizes of this cloth in many areas of Socotra, including the capital city of Hadibu, in addition to Nowgad and Qalansiyya; however, Momi, a mountainous area east of Hadibu, produces the most shamalat (the plural of shimal).

According to Al-Adi, there are three types of shimal, the first of which is made locally of sheep's and goat's wool. The second type is made of a combination of local and imported wool, while the third is made of only imported wool.

Earthen handcrafts

Found in both villages and towns, this is one of Yemen's oldest handcrafts. However, Al-Adi notes, “Due to its different type of soil, Socotra's earthen handcrafts are distinctive because they are made of two different types of soil: white and dark red.”


This handcraft is widespread in the coastal areas. Because Socotra has a plethora of different types of trees, carpenters have numerous choices to select the best timber for their work, making doors, windows, locks, boxes and most importantly, boats.

Traditional art and fashion

Drums and tambourines are considered the main tools of traditional art on Socotra. Island natives sing traditional songs, particularly religious ones, typically performing them in groups after al-isha'a prayer, Al-Adi noted, adding that there are numerous customs for other occasions and parties. Thus, one can hear many folk songs on the coasts.

Further, there are regular meetings for poets in each area of Hadibu, Qadhib, Qarya, Hulaf, Nowgad, Momi, Qalansiyya, Rokub and Diksemthe.

Regarding fashion, Al-Adi notes, “We only find two types of ancient fashion for women, the first of which is made of shimal, but this type now has disappeared completely. The second is similar to the women's dress in Al-Mahra; a Yemeni governorate, a dress with a short front and a very long back also worn with maqarim (head coverings).”

She added, “We saw very little jewelry, but what we found consists of silver and precious stones.”

The reason there's a major impact by Al-Mahrah fashion is due to being under the control of Al-Mahrah sultans in 1511. Al-Mahrah sultanate was abolished in October 1967, after which Socotra became part of the People's Republic of South Yemen – which later became the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen – on Nov. 30

Traditional medicinal handcrafts

Due to being virtually isolated from the rest of the world for a long period, there is insufficient provision of basic human needs, such as access to sustainable livelihoods, safe water and health services; therefore, traditional medicinal handcrafts enjoy great status on Socotra.

In contrast, the archipelago's isolation is an important reason for the survival of its fragile ecological balance between human needs and natural resources until now. The area's rich biodiversity in nature assists residents to use its resources and make medicine.

Leather handcrafts

Handcrafts made of leather are strong, particularly those made of cow leather, with crafters often using it to make mats.

Al-Adi notes, “This handcraft was famous in other Yemeni governorates 60 years ago, but because Socotra still is rich in leather products today, the handcraft continues to flourish.”

The method of tanning the leather remains traditional. After slaughtering a sheep or cow, its skin is cleaned of any meat, after which it is exposed to the sun for three days or until it dries. Small sticks then are affixed to the mat's edges in order to make it flexible and spread it on the earth, Al-Adi explained.

Other leather products are ma'anaqa (rope), which is made of cow leather, and the qirba used to store dates, oils, yogurt and fats. However, Al-Adi noted, “Once kitchenware began being imported, qirab came into disuse.”

Socotra is one of the most isolated landforms of continental origin on Earth. The archipelago once was part of the super continent of Gondwana, but detached during the Middle Pliocene era six million years ago during the same set of rifting events that opened the Gulf of Aden to its northwest.

The archipelago consists of the main island of Socotra, which is 3,625 square kilometers or 1,400 square miles, and three smaller islands collectively known as “the Brothers” – Abdulkuri, Samhah and Darsa – as well as other uninhabitable rock outcrops.