Sevan Nişanyan: a living test case for democracy

Piero Castellano
6 min readJan 17, 2022


Sevan Nişanyan during the press conference held before his appeal hearing

Most people outside Turkey have never heard of Sevan Nişanyan.

They miss a lot, because he is a remarkable man, whose achievements in linguistics, architecture and tourism business will outlive him. Unfortunately, for some evil whim of fate, he has also lived as a focal point where all the tensions and contradictions of Turkish recent history cross each other.

Eventually, just when it seemed finally destined to the blissful oblivion of a happy ending, his name has hit headlines again, confirming his curse to be a living litmus test for any kind of human rights.

Last week the news broke that Sevan Nişanyan is being deported from Greece, a EU country where rule of law supposedly reigns, after being declared a threat to national security for reasons that nobody knows because they are deemed a State secret. His lawyer has appealed against those reasons without being allowed to know what they are, and predictably the appeal has been denied, without anyone being allowed to know why.

In a press conference a few days before the hearing, Mr. Nişanyan called his ordeal Kafkaesque, and stressed that he can’t imagine a reason for being included in the list of undesirables. As an Armenian citizen, he praised the Republic of Armenia’s embassy in Greece for their assistance, and claimed that he would willingly move to Yerevan, if it wasn’t for his wife Ira’s serious illness.

A handful of journalists, including some veterans of Turkey who met or knew Sevan Nişanyan there, played devil’s advocate and tried their best to find a possible offense that could have landed a flamboyant but nerdish, aging scholar, in a list of dangers to Greece’s security.

Nothing apparent was found, not even inadvertent violations of the labyrinthine byzantinisms of Greek visa rules.

It must be stressed that the “Nişanyan Affair” is not a case of denied or failed asylum process. The Turkey born, ethnic Armenian, self-taught architect and appreciated linguist arrived in Greece in the most improbable and adventurous circumstances.

In the multifaceted and often polarized Turkish society, Sevan Nişanyan grew into a rare breed of unaffiliated, outspoken intellectual, influenced only by knowledge and accountable only to himself, but drawing the ire of each segment of said society in the process.

In 1995 Mr. Nişanyan bought a few old buildings in Şirince, then an insignificant and derelict village not far from the ruins of ancient Ephesus. The opening of his hotel there triggered both a wave of renovations, that transformed the village into a trendy and colorful touristic destination, and a revival of its wine industry. The latter irked the (then) new religious conservative rulers, while the former caused him legal troubles for unlicensed construction in a protected area.

The Rock Tomb in Şirince

Meanwhile, he worked on what would become his most important achievement and possibly his long lasting legacy: a monumental three-part dictionary of Turkish etymology, on words, names and places. Unfortunately, due to the turbulent history of Republican Turkey and forced turkification of many areas, linguistic issues are highly politicized, especially toponyms. Arguably, even this apparently scholarly work gained him fierce enmity and harsh criticism, but the worst had yet to come.

In 2008, with the first of what would become a long list of stances that were considered provocations by those in turn offended, Mr. Nişanyan stirred a wave of furious outrage with a book he had written 14 years earlier. It was considered insulting for Atatürk, the founding father of Turkish Republic, whose memory is sincerely revered by secular Turks and whose respect is legally enforced for the others.

Things escalated in 2012. Sevan Nişanyan authored an irreverent blog post, claiming the right of criticizing Islam, which personally outraged then Prime Minister Erdoğan himself. He was prosecuted for insulting people’s religious feelings and sentenced to more than a year in prison. At the trial, Mr. Nişanyan defended himself, in such a provocative way that conviction was all but guaranteed.

But while he was in prison eleven more convictions piled up, one after the other, for a total of 16 years in prison, for violating building regulations. He ended up as the only person in Turkey imprisoned for violating construction rules, in a country where even the presidential palace was built in defiance of court orders. Then, confirming that he is one of a kind, one day in 2017 Mr. Nişanyan just tweeted that he had escaped from prison and from Turkey, and had sought refuge in Greece.

And there, until recently, he must have felt like living happily ever after. He applied for asylum, but meanwhile he got married to his old friend Ira, a Greek citizen, and became a citizen of the Republic of Armenia, therefore applying for resident status. He bought and renovated several houses and resumed his etymological studies.

Sevan Nişanyan shows his etymological dictionaries on the book shelf of his house in Samos

It was inconceivable that something even more absurd than what happened to him in Turkey could hit him in Greece, as a legal resident, on the “right” side of that EU border that is the theater of so much misery for people trying to cross it.

There are alarm bells ringing for the state of democracy in Greece. Journalists and watchdogs are warning that the country that emerged from the Colonels’ dictatorship to be embraced by the EU is on the same path as Hungary and Poland. An emergency measure like the list of undesirables, originally meant to prevent dangerous people from infiltrating asylum seekers, is routinely being used to deport pro-migrants volunteers, and now in the “Nişanyan Affair.”

A legal resident, who is not being prosecuted, because he has committed no offense, is being lawfully (though probably not legitimately) evicted, his life destroyed and his family dispersed while fighting illness. Sevan Nişanyan unwittingly becomes once again a test case for rule of law, democracy and human rights.

Keeping the reasons for his deportation secret is not only precluding a fair appeal, it’s also having the disgraceful side effect of fueling conspiracy theories in Turkey. Allegations are being thrown on press and social media, suggesting xenophobia or Turcophobia of Greek authorities, revenge for his supposed discovery of a Turkish origin of some Greek toponyms, or even neighbors’ jealousy for his lifestyle.

The absurdity of secret accusations, which should at least be disclosed to his lawyer for a basic legal principle, cannot be overstated. While European Union rightly chastises Turkey, a candidate to accession, for its use of secret witnesses in political trials and “national security” used to trample on citizens’ rights, in Greece anyone, even EU citizens, can be added to a list of “threats to national security” without the right of knowing why, which denies the possibility of fair judicial remedy.

Moreover, bullying an aging scholar who had sought asylum in an EU country after a clear persecution is probably damaging Greece more than the permanence of Mr. Nişanyan, and the threat to national security that he allegedly represents, ever could.

A long time friend of Mr. Nişanyan said affectionately that he is “an Amadeus in a world of Salieris” and he expressed dismay at the Salieris winning once again, when he learned that all appeals had failed to save him from deportation.
But he might be wrong on this, even while Sevan Nişanyan packs his books and says his goodbyes to leave into an exile’s exile.

Eventually, no matter how much the Salieris make him suffer, history proves that Amadeus is always the winner.



Piero Castellano

Photojournalist and writer, traveler, biker, based in Genoa, Italy.