The Soqotra island:Where phoenix is revived (2-2) [Archives:2003/637/Last Page]

May 26 2003
Socotra, an exotic paradise
Socotra, an exotic paradise
Vitaly Naumkin
For the Yemen Times

The most peculiar plant in the island is the “Dragon Tree”, like the name implies it's quite a giant tree. It looks like a huge umbrella and is found in many places, it has straight sharp vertical branches protruding in all directions about 3-5 meters high. Each branch forks again after 20-30 cm above the ground into a number of branches which get entangled within and with the young branches of the tree. It makes a beautiful portrait of entangled branches and thick bunches of green leaves. The tree reaches around 5 to 6 meters high and is found in all strange places mostly in the Fermehin area on elevated heights nothing less than 650 or 700 meter above sea level.
The natives call it “Agharuoob”, and use it for extracting glue. Its Arabian name is said to be “Shajarat Dam Al-Akhawaeen” (Tree of the two brothers' blood).
Rumors say that the locals named it this way after an old Indian legend found in the Indian literature. This is quite natural because Socotra at that time was a transit point between India and Arabian Peninsula. According to the Indian myths dragons met elephants with enmity and were thirsty for the elephant's blood. On one occasion when the dragon was sucking out the elephants blood, the dying elephant collapsed on the dragon and consequently its blood mixed with that of the dragon's and the mixture, Sulfide Mercury, was a liquid extracted from the Tree's trunk hence the name.
The mountaineers pierce the trunk and hence red colored thick liquid pours out, once it hardens it turns black and looks like lumps. The lumps are crushed and grounded into a powder that is used as a remedy for eye and skin diseases, as an antiseptic and to stop bleeding. It is also used for curing wounds and for decoration paint. As a tradition, the extorted material is exported abroad and used in creating mixtures and toothpaste and in medicines because of its healing powers and because it is good for gums.
Another of the island plants is “Wild Qat”, which is not used by the locals yet they very much know its effect as some of their animals when eating it while looking for water storing plants fall down with their limbs paralyzed. That is why the locals watch over their camels carefully so as they wouldn't try the dangerous Qat.
Socotra Island is one of the very few places where incense and myrrh (trees which yield a black thick liquid used for ceremonial purposes such as child birth and are known to have a very bitter taste) trees grow. In this island six types of incense, and four types of myrrh trees are found. Generally found in the mountains especially valleys leading to Qlinsiya. In summer, the Myrrh trees which are mostly found in the Faihar area blossom and the valleys are filled with an outstanding beautiful fragrance.
Unfortunately Socotra does not export any of its incense or other products now. Yet a time ago it used to be famous for all that and used to be called the “Incense and Fragrance Land”. In those days incense was widely used in many ceremonies and was a vital material for every family either for religious purposes or just cultural. Herodotus in his notes had mentioned that: “Arabia is the only place where chewing-gum, cinnamon, myrrh and ladnim (which is a material of beautiful fragrance). They suffer so as to produce all types except for myrrh. They need to burn certain glue under gum trees in order to produce the chewing gum, this glue that is brought from Phoenicia where it is used to get rid of hampering birds to their crops.”
What's more amusing is how they used to gather cinnamon where they used to trick the birds, which used the leaves for their nests. The natives would cut dead animals into big lumps and put them in a place where those birds would gather and the silly birds would carry the heavy meat into their nests which as a consequence would breakdown and the cinnamon to the ground where the locals would gather it. A more amusing story is how the Arabs used to beget the ladnim. This material is found in a place with a very repelling smell. It is found glued to bulls' beards which graze freely in the outskirts. This material is collected and is a basic element in many perfume makings and is used as incense. Burning incense in Arabia is used on many occasions as a purifying act as women in some places do it after menstruation and if a man commits any sinful act that brings shame he repents by asking god forgiveness under pillars of smoke coming from burning incense. Incense is also used when washing and bury the dead and in many other occasions.

Socotreans use incense for medication and in general life. It is known for the groom to gift his bride amounts of expensive incense and that the bride uses incense for making the bridal room smell nice. Sometimes dry incense are put under the pillow in the first night as a superstitious custom.
The myrrh tree is a smaller version of the rice tree, whereas the gum tree looks a little wild and scary with its short hard branches and the density of hook-like leaves that make it look like a monster extending its claws to the earth. The Bedouins use out of its heavy peals baskets. A whitish liquid piles up at the tree root and give a beautiful smell, its flowers are quite few and the fruit looks like big seeds.
The locals collect the liquid in summer from the gum trees where they cut through the trunk making deep pores slanting upwards. The liquid gathers there and in a month's time it hardens and hence could be easily collected and new cuts are made. Myrrh trees also are dealt with in a similar way, yet this one has a very bitter taste so they only use the outcome as incense or in medications.

Just like how oil has made a few people rich in today's world, incense industry was the blooming one in the old ages. The religious Chaldeans used to burn in front of their god “Ba'al” 10,000 Talant (A Talant was a weight unit used in old Greece that equals 26.2 kg). In Jerusalem huge corridors and chambers were constructed to contain these gifts for the gods. And in Greece, the people used to use incense in honor of Zeus god of gods, and from there ships loaded with incense would travel to Rome for trade.
In the old times, incense was considered holy and legends claim that it was in incense that the phoenix died. The Roman historian Beleni narrated that the incense gathering season would not be started unless a good omen appeared and the collectors should avoid women, and funerals.
As for Pre-Islam era in Arabia, not much is know but remains was found in the old tombs of old gods like “Al-Laat”. In Yemen particularly it was found that it was used as a decision making aid as it was a method to know if the gods were happy with a certain act, perhaps they'd know if the incense burnt well or not. And it was also used to get rid of evil spirits when a new house or in graveyards.

In the bible, it is said:
Matthew 2:11
“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”
Gold according to the eastern traditions symbolizes power and authority, chewing-gum for theology and myrrh for curing disease.