An author of a number of books ("The Wrong Republic", "The Etymological Dictionary" and others), Nisanyan was awarded the Ayşe Nur Zarakolu Liberty Award of the Turkish Human Rights Association in 2004 for his contributions to greater freedom of speech.
He is also known for his work to restore a semi-derelict village near Turkey’s Aegean coast.
Nișanyan was handed a cumulative jail sentence of 16 years and 7 months after he criticized the government’s attempts to prohibit criticism of the prophet Muhammad, in a blog entry in September 2012. He has been held in a maximum-security Turkish prison since January 2, 2014.
There has been an online petition started by his friend and a prominent mathematician Ali Nesin demanding a solution for the Sevan Nisanyan case.
Early Years and Education
Of Armenian descent, Nişanyan was born in Istanbul in 1956, the son of architect Vagarş Nisanyan. After graduating from the Private Armenian School of Pangaltı he attended Robert College, then studied philosophy at Yale University, concentrating on Kant, Hegel and Thomas Aquinas. He did graduate studies in political science at Columbia University, where he worked under Giovanni Sartori, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Seweryn Bialer and Douglas Chalmers. His PhD thesis (unfinished) concerned competitive strategies of political parties in unstable South American regimes.
Travel writings and publications
In 1985 Nisanyan returned to his native Turkey to complete his compulsory military service. He spent the next two decades as a professional travel writer and guidebook editor in both English and Turkish language media. With journalist Thomas Goltz, he published a series of guidebooks on Turkey's regions. He wrote the American Express Guides to Athens, Prague, and Vienna & Budapest.
In 1998, with his wife Müjde, he brought out the first annual edition of The Little Hotel Book, a guidebook in Turkish and English to Turkey’s small and characterful hotels. The guide was immensely successful, topping national bestseller lists for ten consecutive years, and developing into a cultural icon of the ‘00s. It ceased to publish after the couple's highly publicised divorce in 2008.
Nisanyan married Müjde Tönbekici in 1992. The couple settled in Şirince, a former Greek village in the Aegean hills of Western Turkey which had been semi-derelict since the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey. They were instrumental in having the village declared a national heritage site, and they undertook to renovate ruined historic houses using the original materials and building techniques of the village.
After 2006 Nisanyan collborated with Ali Nesin a prominent mathematician and philanthropist, in developing the Nesin Mathematics Village near Şirince. Constructed strictly along the lines of traditional Aegean rural architecture, the village offered summer courses in college-level and postgraduate mathematics. It attracted prominent lecturers from around the world, accommodating over 300 resident students by summer 2013.
Nisanyan also built Tiyatro Medresesi, a theater institute and actors’ retreat in the manner of mediaeval Muslim seminaries. The Nisanyan Memorial Library was completed in 2013. A philosophy school became operative on the grounds of Mathematics Village in 2014.
The Etymological Dictionary
Nisanyan's Çağdaş Türkçenin Etimolojik Sözlüğü (Etymological Dictionary of Contemporary Turkish) was published in 2002 was the first and so far the most significant reference work in its field. Popularly known as the "The Nisanyan Dictionary", a revised and expanded fifth edition was published in 2008. The full contents of the dictionary have been online since 2007, under the title Sözlerin Soyağacı (Genealogy of words), with new material added on a continuous basis. The current version covers detailed etymological data on over 15.000 words, in most cases including text quotations of earliest attested instances. In addition to being an indispensable source for Turkish, the dictionary is now recognised as a valuable tool for Semitic and Iranian etymology as well, on account of the analysis of more than 5000 Arabic and Persian loanwords embedded in contemporary Turkish vocabulary.
The Wrong Republic
Nişanyan wrote the book The Wrong Republic (Turkish: Yanlış Cumhuriyet), a critique of what Nişanyan saw as the "founding myths" of the Republic of Turkey, which was established in 1923. Written in 1994, the book circulated widely in photocopy until it could be legally published in 2008 without fear of reprisals.
In 2010 Nisanyan published an index of over 16,000 place-names around Turkey which had been changed under the Turkification name-changing policies of the Turkish Republic. There had been no previously published comprehensive documentation of the thousands of traditional names, mostly derived from Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Syriac, Arabic or other more obscure antecedents, which had been replaced by "Turkish" names in the 20th century.
The Index Anatolicus project went online in 2011, and developed into an effort to document all the historic toponyms of Turkey. The current database includes over 56,000 mapped place-names and can be viewed online.
Nisanyan published three collections of his linguistic essays in Elifin Öküzü, Kelimebaz and Kelimebaz-2. The essays dealt with a wide variety of topics in Turkish cultural history, exploring the complex multi–ethnic roots of modern Turkish culture.
In Hocam, Allaha Peygambere Laf Etmek Caiz Midir (2010) Nisanyan dealt with the limits of free speech under Islam. Aslanlı Yol, his autobiography, was published in 2012. A series of essays on the cultural and linguistic sources of Islam, was brought together in Ağır Kitap in 2014.
In 2012 Nisanyan unveiled his Rock Tomb, an Ionic order facade in the manner of ancient Lycia rock tombs, measuring six by four metres, carved into a limestone cliff facing the Mathematics Village near Şirince. The carving was done using hand tools, and took three years to complete. Nisanyan drew up the design and contributed much of the labor.
Müjde Nişanyan issued a complaint to local gendarme against Sevan Nisanyan for throwing his own feces on her face. Feminist collectives protested him and AGOS newspaper.
Nisanyan has been married three times, to Corinna-Barbara Francis (1981-1985), Müjde Tonbekici (1992-2008), and Aynur Deniz (2009-2011). He has five children from the latter two, Arsen (born 1993), İris (1996), Tavit (2000), Anahit (2010) and Mihran (2012). He is described as an "outspoken atheist".
- Ağır Kitap (2014)
- Aslanlı Yol (2012)
- Şirince Meydan Muharebelerinin Mufassal Tarihçesi (2011)
- Hocam, Allaha Peygambere Laf Etmek Caiz Midir (2010)
- Adını Unutan Ülke (2010)
- Kelimebaz 2 (2010)
- Kelimebaz 1 (2009)
- Yanlış Cumhuriyet / Atatürk ve Kemalizm Üzerine 51 Soru (2008)
- Eastern Turkey, A Travelers Handbook (2006)
- Elifin Öküzü ya da Sürprizler Kitabı (2002)
- Sözlerin Soyağacı: Çağdaş Türkçenin Etimolojik Sözlüğü (2002)
- Black Sea, A Travelers’ Handbook (2000)
- The Undiscovered Places of Turkey (2000)
- The Little Hotel Book (1998-2008)
- American Express Guide: Prague, Mitchell Beazley (1993)
- American Express Guide: Vienna and Budapest, Mitchell Beazley (1992)
- American Express Guide: Athens and the Classical Sites, Mitchell Beazley (1991)
- Travels Bugs Turkey (1992)
- Karl Marx: Grundrisse, Ekonomi Politiğin Eleştirisi için Ön Çalışma (translation) (1980)
- Getting off the train, The Economist, 2016
- Turkey Country report, Freedom House 2015
- Turkish Court Defends Prophet Against Yours Truly
- Petotion for Nishanyan
- Ahmet Tulgar, Interview with Sevan Nişanyan, published in Milliyet newspaper, 23 December 2002.
- 2015 should be declared a year of support to Sevan Nisanyan: Hatspanian, Armenian Radio
- Dışkı şiddeti (Turkish)
- "Politics: Getting off the train". The Economist. 6 February 2016. Retrieved 9 February 2016.