Sevan Nişanyan

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Sevan Nişanyan
Born21 December 1956 (1956-12-21) (age 64)
Istanbul, Turkey
NationalityTurkish, Armenian
Spouse(s)Ira Tzourou

Sevan Nişanyan (Western Armenian: Սեւան Նշանեան, born 21 December 1956) is a Turkish-Armenian writer and linguist.[1] An author of a number of books ("The Wrong Republic", "The Etymological Dictionary" and others), Nişanyan 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, Şirince, near Turkey’s Aegean coast.[2]

Sevan Nişanyan was handed a cumulative jail sentence of 16 years and 7 months for alleged building infractions after he criticized the government’s attempts to prohibit criticism of the prophet Muhammad, in a blog entry in September 2012. However, he escaped prison in July 2017 and established in Athens, where he intends to apply for political asylum according to an interview he gave to the Belgian daily La Libre Belgique.[3] He currently lives in exile in Samos about which he has said "I am grateful to providence that the goatfuckers who run Turkey gave me, unintentionally, this splendid opportunity."[4]

Early years and education[edit]

Nişanyan was born in Istanbul in 1956, the son of architect Vagarş Nişanyan. 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 the competitive strategies of political parties in unstable South American regimes.

During his university years Nişanyan became fluent in several languages, including Latin, Arabic and Classical Armenian.

Travel writings and publications[edit]

In 1985 Nişanyan 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.

Nişanyan was awarded the Ayşe Nur Zarakolu Liberty Award of the Turkish Human Rights Association in 2004 for his contributions to greater freedom of speech.


A view of Şirince

Nişanyan 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.

Several of the renovated village houses were eventually converted into a highly acclaimed "Hotel de Charme"[5] by the name of the Nişanyan Houses.[6]

After 2006 Nişanyan collaborated with Ali Nesin, son of the writer Aziz Nesin and 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.

Nişanyan also built Tiyatro Medresesi, a theater institute and actors’ retreat in the manner of mediaeval Muslim seminaries. The Nişanyan Memorial Library was completed in 2013. A philosophy school became operative on the grounds of Mathematics Village in 2014.

The Etymological Dictionary[edit]

Nişanyan's Sözlerin Soyağaci: Çağdaş Türkçenin Etimolojik Sözlüğü (Etymological Dictionary of Contemporary Turkish), published in 2002[7] was the first and so far the most significant reference work in its field. Popularly known as "The Nişanyan Dictionary", a revised and expanded fifth edition was published in 2008. The full contents of the dictionary are available online at,[8] 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[edit]

Nişanyan wrote The Wrong Republic (Turkish: Yanlış Cumhuriyet), a critique of 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 no longer be legally published in 2008 without fear of reprisals.[9]

Index Anatolicus[edit]

In 2010 Nişanyan published an index of over 16,000 place-names across Anatolia which had been changed under the Turkification 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 newly invented Turkish or Turkish-sounding names in the 20th century.

The Index Anatolicus project went online[10] 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.

Other books[edit]

Nişanyan 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) Nişanyan 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.

Rock Tomb[edit]

The "Rock Tomb" in Şirince.

In 2012 Nişanyan unveiled his Rock Tomb, an Ionic order facade in the manner of ancient Lycian rock tombs, measuring eight by five 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. Nişanyan drew up the design and contributed much of the labor.

Criminal prosecution[edit]

Nişanyan was handed a cumulative jail sentence of 16 years and 7 months for alleged building infractions after he criticized the government’s attempts to prohibit criticism of the prophet Muhammad,[11] in a blog entry in September 2012.[12] Imprisoned since 2 January 2014, he escaped prison on 14 July 2017, tweeting, "The bird has flown away. Wishing the same for the rest of the 80 million.".[13]

Personal life[edit]

Nişanyan has been married four 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).[citation needed] On 5 May 2019 he married Ira Tzourou on Samos.[14] He is described as an "outspoken atheist".[15]


Nişanyan has been constantly under criticism for his controversial comments and behaviour on various topics. The earlier of those critiques relate to his commentary on a sexual abuse case, hence he was criticized for justifying sexual abuse and bullying.[16][17]

He emptied a jar of his feces over his ex wife Müjde Tonbekici, which resulted in widespread reaction and disgust from the public, calls to cancel his column on Agos newspaper was rejected by newspaper management.[18]

The most recent criticism and controversy is related to Nişanyan's social media (Twitter) commentary on the 2020 Elazığ earthquake. While commenting on the earthquake Nişanyan implied that the people living in the region deserve it, since "Elaziğ is the most bigoted, ignorant, most paranoid, and sexually obsessed city of Turkey where material and spiritual rape culture prevails. The city is based on a seized property, and is a prison of denied identities".[19][20][21]


  • 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)


  1. ^ "Jailed Turkish-Armenian writer Sevan Nişanyan announces his escape from prison on Twitter - Turkey News". Hürriyet Daily News. Retrieved 2021-02-18.
  2. ^ "Getting off the train".
  3. ^, La. "Sevan Nisanyan a fui la Turquie : "Je crois que le gouvernement est heureux de me voir partir"".
  4. ^ Scott, Alev (2018-03-30). "The agonies of writing from exile". Financial Times. Retrieved 2018-08-27.
  5. ^ "Châteaux & Hôtels Collection : Hôtels de charme et tables gourmandes".
  6. ^ "Nişanyan Hotel".
  7. ^ Ahmet Tulgar, Interview with Sevan Nişanyan, published in Milliyet newspaper, 23 December 2002.
  8. ^ "Nişanyan - Türkçe Etimolojik Sözlük".
  9. ^ "2015 should be declared a year of support to Sevan Nisanyan: Hatspanian". 19 January 2015.
  10. ^ "Index Anatolicus".
  11. ^ "Turkey".
  12. ^ "Sevan Nişanyan – The Official Website of Sevan Nisanyan".
  13. ^ "Detained author in Turkey escapes from prison and tweets: 'The bird has flown away.'". BirGün. 14 July 2017. Retrieved 16 July 2017.
  14. ^ Sevan Nişanyan (8 May 2019). "5 Mayıs Pazar günü Pagondas köyünde İra Tzourou ile evlendim. Törene katılan, iyi dileklerini ileten herkese binlerce teşekkür." [I married Ira Tzourou in the village of Pagondas on Sunday, May 5th. Thousands of thanks to everyone who attended the ceremony and expressed their best wishes.].
  15. ^ "Politics: Getting off the train". The Economist. 6 February 2016. Retrieved 9 February 2016.
  16. ^ "Sevan Nişanyan, 'Tecavüzcülerin çoğu, büluğ çağında yolunu kaybetmiş âşıklardır' diye yazabilirken ne düşündü?". T24 (in Turkish). Archived from the original on 2020-01-25. Retrieved 2020-01-25.
  17. ^ "Sevan Nişanyan, cinsel tacizciliğin manifestosunu yazdı: Size vereceği zarar nedir!". T24 (in Turkish). Archived from the original on 2020-01-25. Retrieved 2020-01-25.
  18. ^ "Bianet :: Agos'tan Sevan Nişanyan Açıklaması". 2008-12-04. Archived from the original on 2008-12-04. Retrieved 2020-01-26.
  19. ^ "Yurtdışına kaçan Sevan Nişanyan: Elazığ Türkiye'nin tecavüz kültürü en gelişkin kenti - Tele1". Archived from the original on 2020-01-25. Retrieved 2020-01-25.
  20. ^ Nişanyan, Sevan (January 25, 2020). "Twitter". Archived from the original on January 25, 2020. Retrieved January 25, 2020.
  21. ^ "Dilbilimci Nişanyan: Elazığ Türkiye'nin tecavüz kültürü en gelişkin kentidir, çocuklara yazık tabii, onlar suçsuz". Independent Türkçe (in Turkish). 2020-01-25. Archived from the original on 2020-01-25. Retrieved 2020-01-25.

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