Report of work at Soqotra

The first season of fieldwork for the Islamic Fortifications Project on Soqotra coincided with the inclusion of Soqotra within the World Monuments Fund Watch (WMF) List (, which highlighted the importance of Soqotra’s cultural heritage, including the island’s defensive fortifications. Consequently, this project has received particular attention from the WMF and the General Organisation of Antiquities and Museums (GOAM) Yemen. The aims of this first season were to undertake a comprehensive and multidisciplinary study of the Islamic fortifications at Jebel Hawari as well as train local archaeologists in basic and advanced survey techniques and excavation practices. These aims were realised in the months of March and April 2022, while working alongside the director of GOAM Soqotra and a team of local archaeologists from the Soqotra Heritage Project (SHP).

The first work programme (WP1) of the Islamic Fortifications Project on Soqotra was the creation of a spatial framework within QGIS, where the available historical, archaeological, geo-environmental data, together with digital and georeferenced analog maps and satellite data could be collated. The creation of this spatial framework for Jebel Hawari is currently being completed with data obtained from the Soqotra Heritage Project cultural heritage database and the data gathered from the first season of fieldwork. This baseline data is being utilised in the interpretation and analysis of the overall socio-economic, historical, political and geo-environmental landscape of the forts on Soqotra. With regards to the Jebel Hawari fort, we are beginning to better understand not only how, when and by whom the fort was constructed, but also how this fort functioned within the surrounding environment.

The second work programme (WP2) of the Islamic Fortifications Project on Soqotra for the first season was the targeted and systematic analysis of the Islamic fort at Jebel Hawari. The aim of the first phase of this season’s work was to undertake a comprehensive survey of the fort and provide local archaeologists with hands-on experience, skills and knowledge in survey and excavation techniques. To facilitate the training of local archaeologists and generate a sequence of base maps from the interventions undertaken three successive base maps were generated, 1. before the clearance of vegetation and areas of overburden - where a limited number of features were observable, 2. after clearance of vegetation and areas of overburden - where features were better defined, and 3. after further targeted excavation and further clearance of collapse and overburden – where an architectural sequence for the fort could be clearly defined. These base maps were generated using digital terrestrial photography coupled with aerial photography, using a GPS enabled drone and a total station. Collating and georeferencing these images allowed for a sequence of georeferenced orthomosaic base maps to be generated. These base maps were then incorporated within a singular model from which stratigraphic units could be identified and a typological, technical and architectural sequence for the fort established. The construction of the georeferenced 3D model of Jebel Hawari fort and surrounding landscape was undertaken in the software programme Agisoft Metashape, allowing for the fort to be analysed in the context of its surroundings and to provide a virtual environment for further analysis, awareness and education. Utilising this 3D model, it was possible to virtually access the outer walls built along the cliff edge. This would have normally been impossible as these walls were either inaccessible or too dangerous to survey using conventional techniques. As a result, it was possible to identify differences in construction techniques and establish a preliminary architectural sequence that can be correlated with the construction techniques and architectural style of the fort. In addition to the creation of a georeferenced 3D model of the fort, a georeferenced 2D base map was created within a spatial database, QGIS (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Base map of Jebel Hawari fort showing the structure of the fort based and stratigraphic units identified. The earliest construction of the fort (Islamic 1) is marked in black (author).

The aim of the second phase of this season was to establish a chronology and locate evidence that would allow for the establishment, destruction and abandonment phases of the fort to be determined. This involved a targeted excavation within the fort. Due to the impact of several extreme weather events that have caused significant soil erosion within the fort and successive looting events a trench was dug within a cistern. The undisturbed internal deposits within the cistern allowed for stratigraphic depositional sequences to be revealed in plan and section. During this excavation a burnt deposit containing charcoal was revealed and a sample for C14- AMS dating was obtained (results pending).

The aims of the final phase of this season were to collate and digitise the written and photographic site records of all survey and excavation works, including registers, plans and sections, matrices and the analyse and interpret of finds, notably pottery. The digitisation of this site archive has been completed and incorporated within an open-source spatial database (pyArchInit for QGIS) for further analysis. While the results of this season’s work are preliminary and further analysis is still necessary, several key points concerning the constructional and architectural phases of the fort have been established. Firstly, Jebel Hawari fort was built in four phases, namely Islamic 1 – 4 (Figure 2). The first phase (Islamic 1) was the construction of a rectangular fort, a cistern, and an area of walling between the cistern and fort. Historically, the construction of the fort on Jebel Hawari is believed to have occurred sometime after 1480, when the nephew of Sultan Omar ibn Tuārī of the ͨAfār tribe was sent to Soqotra to impose tribute on the inhabitants and forestall the colonial ambition of their perennial rival the Qu`aytî Sultanate in Hadramawt (Tibbetts 1981: 223; Serjeant 1992: 162-163). While Naumkin and Sedov (1993: 612) agree that the fort was constructed by the Al-Mahrah, based on findings of pottery dated from the 10th – 17th centuries century below the fort, it remains unclear as to whether they are proposing the hypothesis that the fort was built in the 10th century. Currently there is no available evidence to support a 10th century date for the establishment of the Jebel Hawari fort, although further targeted excavations within the collapsed structure of the rectangular fort may provide some evidence for this. During the second phase of construction (Islamic 2), the presumed southwest entrance of the rectangular fort was walled and a wall abutting the southwestern edge of the rectangular fort was constructed. Beneath the wall closing the presumed entrance of the rectangular fort is a drainage ditch within which sherds of Soqotri pottery were found. The third phase of construction (Islamic 3), is the most extensive and includes the construction of a curtain wall and three bastions situated along the west, north and south-western edge of the fort. In addition, a walled entrance way was constructed at the north-eastern edge of the rectangular fort structure. Within the interior of the fort a series of walled structures were built that, in some cases joined with the outer curtain wall. Presumably these structures were the outer walls for animal pens and / or storage areas, notably those built in the south and west. Within the western bastion a c.15cm lime mortar deposit was identified. Based on ethnographic accounts, this deposit relates to the storage of lime, which would have been used during construction, repair and maintenance. The final phase of construction (Islamic 4) of the fort was the reinforcement of the northern curtain wall and bastions, the addition of a lime mortar floor along the passage from the entrance into the fort, and what appears to be an additional cistern to the east of the original cistern. Clearance of this area uncovered a channel that would presumably have been used to transfer water between the two cisterns. While the second cistern was not excavated the northern face that was exposed had a similar mortaring technique to that used in the original cistern.


Figure 2. Base map of Jebel Hawari fort showing the structural phasing (author).

Absolute dating for the four phases of construction has not yet been established, yet it is clear from the evidence that, contrary to the hypothesis proposed by Doe (1992: 93, 1970: 46), the fort was not constructed by the Portuguese. During the seven-year occupation by the Portuguese we learn that not only they were under constant threat of attack, but were not supplied with victuals by the local population (Commentaries 1884: 1.44-56; Brásio 1943: 12). Thus, it would seem highly improbable that any of the construction phases identified could have been undertaken by them as each phase of construction identified would have taken a substantial labour force to complete which, according to the historical sources was not available to them. Moreover, according to Doe (1992: 45, 84, 93, fig. 21) the fort only had one bastion, whereas we have identified three, each linked to the curtain walling of the fort. While analysis of the construction sequence of similar forts in Yemen and Arabia are ongoing there are several similarities with earlier Islamic mediaeval fortresses dated to the 15th century in Arabia (Nicolle 2009).

Ongoing analysis of the lime mortar used in the construction of the fort has currently identified four kinds of lime mortar, 1) a compact smooth mortar with small (c. 10 – 30 mm) stone inclusions that was used to line the exterior wall of the rectangular fort (Islamic 1). 2) a compact rough mortar with larger inclusions of stone (c. 20 – 50 mm) and coral (c. 20 – 40 mm) used to plaster the outer curtain walls (Islamic 3). 3) a friable smooth mortar with no inclusions used to line the interior walls of the rectangular fort (Islamic 1), and 4) a bonding mortar with sand and small (c. 0.1 – 0.3 mm) stones that was used in the construction of the rectangular fort and interior walls. The differences in the types of mortar that were being used in the construction and lining of the various structures within the fort are assisting in providing an insight into the construction techniques and architectural sequence of the fort. Moreover, utilising data from the ethnographic mortaring traditions on the island it is possible that specific mortaring styles that can be traced to specific artisanal practices that were and are still being practiced in different villages across Soqotra could be identify.

The lack of pottery during the clearance and excavation of Jebel Hawari fort can be attributed to a number of causes. The primary causes appear to be successive looting events that have led to the partial destruction of several structures alongside with extreme weather events that have resulted in significant erosion of the site. The majority of the pottery found within the fort have therefore come from an aeolian surface deposit SU01 – 35 sherds, and a sub-surface sandy clay deposit SU05 – 14 sherds. The majority of these sherds can be identified as being local Soqotri wares. Despite local Soqotri wares having been found in a number of different deposits dated from c. 3rd century AD to the present day, no typo-chronological studies have been undertaken (Naumkin and Sedov 1993: 605). Consequently, the local Soqotri wares do not, as of yet, allow for a typo-chronological sequence to be undertaken.

One of the main issues facing a garrison station at jebel Hawari fort is the provisioning of water, as the only source of permanent water in the vicinity is the wadi passing through the village of Suq. During the survey a rainwater runoff channel cut into the bedrock and lined with mortar was identified. This runoff channel stopped one metre short of the eastern rectangular water ingress point of the cistern. The gap between the bedrock and the cistern appears to have been a settling tank that was walled along its western extent to guide the flow of water into the entrance of the cistern. While this runoff water would have provided a source of water for several months of the year, it is unlikely that this would have been sufficient during the dry summer months, where water would have had to have been brought to the fort from the wadi at Suq. The second cistern that was built during Islamic phase 4 lies above the first cistern and would have drained through an additional rectangular ingress point on the eastern edge of the first cistern. During the survey this rectangular ingress point was blocked with several large rocks, presumably to regulate the flow of water from the uppermost cistern into the lower one.

The third work programme (WP3) of the Islamic Fortifications Project on Soqotra for this season was to place the Islamic fort at Jebel Hawari within the context of the surrounding landscape (Figure 3). Situated on a rocky outcrop above the village of Suq on Soqotra’s north coast, Jebel Hawari fort has a clear view across the Hadiboh plain to the southwest, the coastline towards the modern seaport to the northeast, and the Indian Ocean to the west. Historically the village of Suq was the main port from the 1st century AD and features within numerous accounts including the 16th century sketches by the Portuguese viceroy Dom João de Castro, which also show the curtain walls of Jebel Hawari fort (Kammerer 1936: 25-48; Fontoura da Costa 1940). The construction and occupation of Jebel Hawari by the Al Mahri sometime after 1480 is therefore unsurprising in that it would have provided an early warning to the inhabitants of Suq of visiting ships and raids, such as the Portuguese in 1507 and the Omanis in 1669. However, what is unclear is how many people were stationed at the fort and for how long. Based on the depth and size of the cistern associated with Islamic 1, it can be surmised that there would have been sufficient water to support a garrison of 20 people with sufficient water for approximately 200 days. The addition of a second cistern in Islamic phase 4 would therefore imply that water had become an issue that was potentially related to an increase in the size of the garrison stationed at the fort, or may have been related to the need for additional provisioning of water for livestock housed in the walled off areas within the fort during Islamic phase 3. What is apparent is that during the final phases of the fort there was a substantial increase in the number of people stationed at the fort that may have been related to an increase in hostilities. Further evidence that supports this hypothesis are the destruction and abandonment phases identified within the excavated trench slot of the cistern. Consequently, the dating of the burnt layer found within the cistern may help to provide an insight into the later history of the fort before it was eventually abandoned.


Figure 3. An aerial view of Jebel Hawari overlooking the village of Suk (author).

Overall, the first season of the Islamic Fortifications Project on Soqotra has begun to further our understanding and knowledge of Soqotra’s Islamic period and has helped in bettering our understanding of the chronological, typological, technical and architectural sequence of the Islamic fortifications on Soqotra. While the results of this first season are still being analysed it is clear that the survey and excavation of the fort on Jebel Hawari has finally begun to deepen our understanding of Soqotra’s Islamic past and allow an island that has been intrinsically linked with regional and inter-regional social, religious, economic and political events in the Indian Ocean to be better understood (Figure 4).


Figure 4. An aerial view of Jebel Hawari fort at the end of the season (author).

Programme for next season

The aims of season 2 are to undertake a targeted and systematic analysis of the Islamic fort at Firigi (2 months). The season will be divided into three phases, a survey phase (Phase 1), an excavation phase (Phase 2), and a post-excavation phase (Phase 3). During each phase local SHP archaeologists will work alongside professional archaeologists, allowing them to gain hands-on experience, skills and knowledge. The aims of Phase 1 are to undertake a comprehensive survey of the fort using traditional and digital documentation techniques to establish a typological, technical and architectural sequence. The documentation techniques employed during this phase will include the use of planning frames, as well as terrestrial and aerial photography, thereby allowing for a comprehensive site plan and photogrammetry 3D model of the fort to be prepared. The aims of Phase 2 are to conduct targeted excavations to obtain dating evidence to aid in the development and expansion of a chronological sequence for the establishment, settlement and abandonment phases identified as part of Phase 1. These targeted excavations will be directed by myself in collaboration with the director of General Organisation of Antiquities and Museums (GOAM) Soqotra, six local archaeologists and two professional archaeologists. Excavation trenches will be positioned in order to maximise potential for obtaining dating evidence relating to the establishment, settlement and abandonment phases of the structure. The trenches will target architectural elements and undisturbed internal deposits to obtain samples for C14-AMS dating and to allow for built architectural sequences and stratigraphic depositional sequences to be revealed in plan and section. Excavations will be recorded as single context with occasional adaption to multi context as necessary. Trenches will be recorded using standardised Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) recording techniques and nomenclature will be adapted to local usage. Written and photographic records will be undertaken of all excavation works with full site registers of written, drawn and photographic records. The aims of Phase 3 are to analyse the finds and to collate and digitise the site archives, registers, plans and sections. The digitisation of the site archive will allow for further post-excavation analysis to be undertaken and create an archive through which the Islamic fortifications on Soqotra can be understood in terms of their surrounding socio-economic, political and topographic landscape.


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