Soqotra Archipelago

World Monuments Watch

Site History and Significance

An Island of Unique Biodiversity

The largest island in the Arabian Sea, Soqotra is known for striking landscapes, from sandy beaches to limestone caves, jagged mountain peaks, and forests of iconic dragon blood trees. Soqotra’s geographic isolation has given rise to a unique biodiversity, with hundreds of plant species found only on the island. 

The island’s flora has attracted scientific interest for more than a century, including a longstanding connection to Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden. This interest intensified after Soqotra opened up to the outside world following the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, and after construction of an airport in 1999 enabled year-round visitation. To safeguard Soqotra’s natural environment, the introduction of strong environmental protections paved the way for its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008.

Soqotri Culture and Living Heritage

The global regard for Soqotra’s biodiversity has often resulted in overlooking the unique cultural heritage and living traditions of the Soqotri people. For millennia the Soqotra archipelago has featured prominently within the Indian Ocean maritime trading network acting as an important hub for trade between the Red Sea, East Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, attracting traders from throughout the Indian Ocean world to its shores. In antiquity, Soqotra was famed for its frankincense, aloe, and the crimson sap of the dragon blood tree that was used for medicinal and aesthetic purposes. 

The cultivation and extraction of these rich natural resources continue to represent key elements of Soqotri culture and traditional knowledge today. Alongside a distinctive living culture based on the endangered Soqotri language, music, and poetry, Soqotra preserves a rich, millennia-long heritage of rock art sites, traditional agricultural wall systems, defensive fortifications, settlements, churches, mosques, and cemeteries.

The Threat of Climate Change

Today, the world’s changing climate is threatening biodiversity, built heritage, cultural traditions, and local livelihoods on the Soqotra archipelago. This rich living heritage deserves recognition and protection. As global climate change intensifies, devastating cyclones are increasing in frequency. Extreme weather events in 2015 and 2018 took a destructive toll on Soqotra’s built heritage, including the nineteenth-century mosque of ‘Alha, which has since become the object of emergency interventions led by World Monuments Fund (WMF). Meanwhile, the Soqotra Heritage Project, a partnership between Soqotri heritage experts and international advisors and led by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, has begun the crucial task of documenting heritage places and traditions across the island as well as raising awareness of threats and potential conservation action.

2022 World Monuments Watch

The 2022 World Monuments Watch seeks to support collective efforts to promote recognition of Soqotri living traditions and traditional knowledge, as well as the long-term preservation of all of Soqotra’s heritage in all its forms.

Learn More

Through the World Monuments Watch, WMF collaborates with local partners to design and implement targeted conservation programs—including advocacy, planning, education, and physical interventions in the historic built environment—to improve human well-being through cultural heritage preservation. 

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Last updated: March 2022.

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