‘Mad Vandalism’: Turkey to Demolish Hotels of Outspoken Armenian Entrepreneur-Scholar

Sevan Nisanyan, the owner of Nisanyan Hotels, and a linguist, columnist, academic, and outspoken critic, is facing a demolition order on his hotels throughout Turkey. In a country packed with illegal constructions, the targeting of the Nisanyan Hotels speaks volumes about Turkey’s persecution of its minority citizens who dare to raise their voice against the government or its denialist policies.

'It is an act of mad vandalism, but I doubt very much that they will be able to carry it out.'

The Nisanyan Hotels are located in Sirince, Izmir, a village of around 600 inhabitants in the Aegean hills. Nisanyan moved there 15 years ago, and almost single handedly turned this small village with a dying agriculture into a booming tourist spot.

“I have been active in preserving the historic heritage of the village. It was mostly through my activities that Sirince has now become a well-known tourist destination,” he told the Armenian Weekly.

Nisanyan purchased and renovated many houses in Sirince, using traditional methods of building and preserving the aesthetics of the area. He then converted those house into what today is known as the Nisanyan Hotels.

“As far as I know, this is the first—and I think only—commercial establishment in the history of the Turkish Republic that carries an openly Armenian name,” he said.

Nisanyan is certainly a passionate and persistent man, and a stickler for justice when it comes to saving his “babies,” as he calls his houses. “The local bureaucracy regarded my activities with hostility from day one. I was harassed constantly, permissions were either denied or delayed by 10 years or more, I had to face more than 30 court cases, was fined repeatedly, arrested, jailed, and so on. I persevered, and my perseverance made them even angrier.”

His battle has been going on for 15 years, and now he may lose all that he has built. “They have passed a decision to demolish every single house I have built in 15 years. The governor of Izmir is behind the decision. He is a man notorious as the former governor of a Kurdish province where army-run assassination squads operated freely.”

“It is an act of mad vandalism,” he continued, “but I doubt very much that they will be able to carry it out.”

Nisanyan noted that to date, 16 criminal charges—carrying a 50-year prison sentence—have been brought against him, and all are related to “unauthorized construction,” “unauthorized repair work,” and “defying government orders.” Five cases have concluded, serving him with a total of 10.5 years in prison. His appeals are pending.

Add to those the demolition order, the court cases following his views that are often deemed as “insulting Turkishness,” and the threats he receives from individuals with ultra-nationalist mindsets, and a bleak reality emerges for the Armenian population of Turkey.

“Although there is much willingness now among the Turkish elite to revise Turkey’s traditional attitude toward minorities, the old habits die hard in the bureaucracy. There is instinctive hostility toward an Armenian. It turns rabid when that Armenian is also an outspoken critic of the Turkish system,” Nisanyan told the Weekly.

Sevan Nisanyan and his wife, Mujde—after renovating Mujde’s 'donkey shed' and turning it into their residence—bought and rebuilt a handful of other houses near ruin.

Nisanyan, who was awarded the 2004 Freedom of Thought Award by the Human Rights Association of Turkey, has often voiced views that are controversial in the tightly censored Turkish society. He has spoken publically about the Armenian Genocide, winning him more than a few enemies. His most recent comments, made during a Turkish television debate program, resulted in the punishment of the airing station by Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), who claimed Nisanyan’s comments were excessively critical and that they “humiliated the Republic of Turkey.”

However, Nisanyan does hold on to a ray of optimism, and views this current obstacle as an opportunity for Turkey’s authorities to turn a new page in upholding and protecting minority rights.

“I believe this is a test case for the Erdogan government’s willingness to improve minority rights in Turkey. I believe it is also a test case that will show if Armenians can go on living freely and securely in this country, or whether the old system of state thuggery will go on unchanged,” he said.

Nisanyan Hotels and Sirince

Sevan Nisanyan and his wife, Mujde—after renovating Mujde’s “donkey shed” and turning it into their residence—bought and rebuilt a handful of other houses near ruin. Around the same time, Nisanyan published a guidebook to small hotels in Turkey, which turned out to be a big hit. The Nisanyans soon after decided that they, too, would operate a small hotel—and that they would do it right.

“At first they did not know what to do with their collection of refurbished donkey sheds. Then they concluded that, as the most dreaded hotel critics in the land, they might as well put their hand under the millstone—as they say in Turkish—and learn how to run an inn themselves. Nisanyan Houses were born in August 1999,” explains the blurb on their hotel website.

The hotels were a success, and they soon bought the main hotel building. It was an “ugly apartment building that some big shots from Ankara had started building years ago,” but had left incomplete. It was a huge eyesore—an “abomination”—and the largest construction in town (though only three stories tall). While renovating this main building, the authorities tried to put a stop to it, but Nisanyan refused to give in. The dispute went to court, and Nisanyan won on a technicality.

Nine more cases were filed against him. He won all but one. “They turned it into a lynching campaign,” he told the Planning Report in an interview.

Nisanyan eventually went to jail for a wall he had built in his own garden.

What is surprising is that the authorities would go to such lengths to stop a man who seems to be in love with this small village, with its historic Greek houses, and has exerted much time and effort in building and protecting it.

To remain true to the architectural heritage of Sirince, Nisanyan and his builders pulled apart ruined houses to study the materials, modes of construction, and intricacies of the earlier builders. He published this information in a booklet—a sort of hand manual—for builders in Sirince, written in a simple language, in an effort to continue the time-honored cultural and building traditions.

The village was declared a historic site in 1984, and no constructions or renovations were to take place in it. Many, however, went on with their business, building on and renovating their own properties. According to Nisanyan, there are at least 90 illegal building constructions in the village.

“When a place is declared a historical site, by law they have to produce a [zoning] plan for the village within a year. It actually took 23 years to produce the plan. It came into effect, finally, last year. Throughout this period, it was entirely impossible to build anything legally in the village,” Nisanyan told the Planning Report.

The long overdue plan is catastrophic, according to Nisanyan. The traditional structures in the building have basic mathematical proportions and a style that are entirely overlooked by the drafters of the plan. While the traditional village houses were made of stone and timber, the new plan allows the use of cement and permits 250 new houses in the village. For Nisanyan, the new zoning plan spells disaster for the village. And so he chose to defy it.

This unyielding campaign against Nisanyan and his hotels has made headlines before. In 2004, Hakan Ataman, in an article for Radikal, wrote: “There are 40,000 illegal buildings waiting to be demolished in Izmir; 70 percent of the buildings in Istanbul are illegal; 80 percent of [touristic] facilities in Olimpos are illegal; all of the buildings in Sirince are illegal. Turkey is a paradise of illegal buildings. Yet for some reason the Nisanyan houses are targeted.”

The reason, however, seems to have far less to do with the legality of the constructions than with the tolerability of Nisanyan within Turkish society. For a state so adamant in censoring all who dare to be critical of its policies—whether leaders of other sovereign states, or Google and its YouTube—a Turkish-Armenian who refuses to bend and parrot official Turkish discourse must seem like an insufferable thorn.

In Nisanyan’s own words to the Weekly, “’The Armenian who openly defies the Turkish state is something they cannot tolerate.”

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in Political Science and English and her M.A. in Conflict Resolution from the University of Massachusetts (Boston).
Nanore Barsoumian

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  1. And the funny thing is, that should not be Turkish territory anyway. 

    If it’s near Izmir/Smyrna, it should be Greek land. 

    The genocides continue. 

    The Reconcilation crowd (ie. some Armenians) does not understand this, and is going to travel to Aghtamar to give the Turkish Genocidists a propaganda victory.   The Turks blow a whistle, and the Reconciliation crowd says “Ay, ay, sir.”

  2. Oh Dear God,
    The official victim #1,500,002 is in the death row, please save this one for us from those savage people; all your Armenian flocks around the world are praying and watching you…..
    In difficult moments we normally say “May God be with you” to each other; but this time we are all far away and can’t tell him,  So please be with him.

  3. Dear Dave,
    I agree with you that perhaps the Reconcilliation crowd(as you put it) does not quite grasp it.
    However,whether we like it or not some of our Babiks mamiks and middle aged or young are yearning to go see ,nay make a Pilgrimage and pray at Akhtamar…
    It may also serve as a reminder that if SO MANY ARMENIAN PILGRIMS GO TO AKHTAMAR(this to foreign non Armenian News /media people anad the world at large when they see on T.V. the gathering there..they will indeed conclude  that these are Christians,Armenian christians who go to an ancient 10 Century old Church,built by Armenian King Gagik Artzruni(inscripts on it attest to it…)
    Then again,the turkish propaganda machine  does indeed  hope that  if Armenians refuse to go they will trunpet”see,we extended  a hand to them…etc.,but they boycotted  it.  Whereas once there-even  if not allowed  to light candles,hopefully some will have batter operated such-Again,I have posted on a few forums,IF EITHER ATATURK´s image or a turkish Flag is draped on Church ,thesse Pilgrims should stay out of church,even if liturgy is conducted inside and pray there…thus  in a milder fashion show OUR WILL,our unbreakable will not to  bend more to their whims..
    Be it known to you that there are some very small signs that their tough stance is by and by  softening up.This either to show to Euro Ams their tendency(propaganda or not)to Democracy…
    Do not forget after hran Dink slaying they have …ugh..begun to show some very small signs..more to come  yet.Their “Voj” style is so “yavash yavash”by adn by ,lest it becomes an avalanche…they are smelling the rat…always ahead  of such happenings,Thence their cat style cautiousness…to jump at target  if they can..we must try to duck, in this case play along  with them “yavash yavash” too.
    best rgds

  4. Well Gaytzag I disagree with you and I think the powerful word of boycott of our
    Vehapar Aram the First is more straight and effective than anything else.

  5. How many Turkish owned hotels are there in Armenia? Since we only hear one side of the story (as is always the case), we can not make any definitive conclussions. This individual goes on TV over there and says God knows what (insulting,etc.) and he gets cut off. He got what he deserved in that regard! At least he was able to go on TV there! How many Turks or Azeris can go on Armenian TV in Yerevan or any of the outlying cities and towns, let alone say insultive things? With a purity rate of 98% acheived via ethnic cleansing, Armenia needs to look at itself before pointing fingers at anyone else. 

    As for this guys hotels, assuming that they’re up to building code and not in an earthquake prone area, AND he hasn’t done anything illegal (remember, we’re only hearing one version/side of this story, as usual), then his hotels should be left alone.  

  6. I admire his work, dedication and determination. Luckily Turkey is changing and hopefully the Turkish authorities will realize that it is better to tolerate dissent (which means talented people like Nishanyan can bring their contribution to modern Turkey).
    The visit of the Turkish President to Armenia was a watershed.
    Armenian campaigners should give the new generation of Turkish leaders an opportunity to presuade the Turkish public that compromise is possible

  7. Turks never stop don’t they? 

    It is just absolutely disturbing to read that Armenians can’t live in peace in Turkey…. and they are being harrassed by the govt over and over.. one to tell them to get the hell out of our lands…

    Unbelievable… Bravo Mr Nisanyan for standing your ground.. please be careful.. i am definintely worried about your safety….you can never be too careful in Turkey..your story is a great example to show the word how much intelorance Turkish govt has toward Armenian citizens…

    May God protect you and your family and your business…


  8. Robert,Nesanyan is a Turkish national of Armenian origin.He should have the same rights as any other Turkish national & not be harassed & chased because of his Armenian origins.
    I’ve followed this story through Hurriyet & know very well that it has nothing to with building regulations.It would be helpful if your remarks have to do anything with the subject.I know very well that you hate us,but let us give & take in a better humane manner.Anyhow whether you like it or not end of article 301 is very near after the Turkish government’s climbdown against the Hrant Dink European court case…
    So this case against Nisanyan will soon be dropped.

  9. All I know is that town of Sirince will also die when these hotels are gone. Turkiye is making wrong move.

  10. I have to say that this person Mr Nisanciyan (I know him personally), tries to pull the matter to nationalism. First of all, not only his hotel is being demolished, but the buildings of the Turkish nationals are being demolished, because they had been built against the regulations. This person has built his hotel on an old traditional house damaging its character. The Turkish TV channels show hundreds of such buildings.  On the other hand, we know many wealthy business people of Armenian origin.

  11. Dear Resoman,
    I have been following this story from day one in the Turkish media & not once I read anything about building without planning permission or changing the character of the buildings.You can see his website which is nisanyan.com I think…anyway you can google it & read about these properties & see how he has taken care of the buildings plus he has revived the whole area.
    The issue is that this person is a writer/commentator & has openly criticised the Turkish government in some or other issue.Freedom of speech in Turkey?Article 301…
    So Turkish nationalists want to demolish him… I do hope that he does not become another Hrant Dink.

  12. Resoman…

    You say you know this man personally.. do you mind sharing with us how you know him.. are you related? did you have someone from your family who is married into his family? are you collegues??? are you friends?

    Can someone tell me what these regulations are that Nesanyan is breaking and according to Resoman, other Turks do too?  I want to really understand the purpose of why would Nesayan deliberately build hotels on grounds that are against the law/regulations…


    You sound like someone who cares about fairness, open-mindedness, democracy, freedom of speech..ect… that was comical..:)
    We both know that it is not ALL about regulations when it comes to Nesanyan because as you said yourself, you believe Nesanyan insults Turkishness by speaking out against your intolerable govt, your bloodthirsty govt, your lying and cheating govt, your manipulative govt… i wonder why that is Robert?  Are you saying you are like your govt??? Is it because Turkey can’t handle the truth??? Is that why Turkey is doing everything to silence those who know the truth and want to share it with the world and Turkey’s citizens who are willing to learn about their true history and accept the fact that maybe Turkey is not the country they thought it was.. Of course the Turkish State is horrified about the thought of that which is why they are going to so many extremes to slience those speaks out? don’t you think?

    You say
    How many Turkish owned hotels are there in Armenia?

    Comment: Why would they?  Don’t they have ENOUGH OF Armenia’s lands already to build their hotels and why would they have the urget to spill over into our small  landlocked country to build their buildings? 

    you know that BIG CHUNK of Turkey was originally Armenia….. so basically what Turks are doing is building on the Armenian lands or renovating houses, streets, hotels, govt palaces that belonged to Armenians..just in case you have forgotten about that.. so why would Turks want to come to Armenia.. they are already on Armenian lands……

    You say:
    How many Turks or Azeris can go on Armenian TV in Yerevan or any of the outlying cities and towns, let alone say insultive things?

    Comment: why would they?  they are already insulting Armenians with their many actions: destroying our churches, historical monuments, houses and neighborhoods that belonged to our ancestors, imprisoning or killing those that speak out about Genocide, using billions of dollars annually  to threaten other democratic societies, (and unfortunately the wealth they are using to block everything ARmenian including the Ottoman Genocide of the Eastern and Western Armenia has been stolen and accumulated from all those they murdered in cold blood including all Non-Muslims who lived in present Day Turkey but Ancient Armenia mind you)and the list goes on…. so why would they have the urge to go on TV just to repeat what they are already doing with their actions.. intolerance, manipulation, threat and ignorance toward Armenians and other Christians rule Turkey and will continue to do so for many years..Turkey will never change to the degree where she will be considered as a whole democratic country ..and i hope they never get accepted into UN….. 

    But thank you for agreeing that Nesanyan should be left alone if he is not breaking laws/regulations.. because we both know he could not have been breaking sooooooooooooooo many laws and violating sooooo many regulations to have his years of hard work be demolished this way.. personally i would not go to that extent because who wants to deal with the intolerant Turkish govt and her harrassments….

    Thank you and have a great day..

  13. Robert says: “How many Turkish owned hotels are there in Armenia?”

    How many Turkish owned hotels are there anywhere else in the world? For example, how many of them are there in France or, on average, any other country in the world? Let us know please and I will figure out for you how many there should’ve been in Armenia, given your statistic and the size of Armenia.

    “How many Turkish … in Armenia?” seems to be your favorite tune. You sing it over and over again. I can tell you one thing for sure. There are numerous Turkish owned properties in Western Armenia for which Turks never paid a cent but keep making money out of them. Isn’t that enough? I am sure that Mr. Nisanyan paid the market value for what he has (on a formerly Greek piece of land, I understand) and, given that he is a Turkish citizen, I don’t understand your trying to present it to us as a favor from Turks to an Armenian.  

    FYI, there are foreign-owned properties in Armenia, and the owners are doing just fine. Are you interested in purchasing something? Come and try, pay the price. If you face problems, then we can talk. Until then, stop your habit of shooting in the air. 

    Robert further says: “This individual goes on TV over there and says God knows what (insulting,etc.)”

    You keep talking about there being only one side of the story. Tell me YOUR side of the story, please. I don’t understand Turkish to know what Nisanyan has said. What EXACTLY did he say that insulted your fragile egos? “God knows what” and “insulting” are too general. Would you like to be more specific? Was it an insult by general/international standards or by Turkish standards (Article 301)? It must be really hard to listen to the truth when it’s not in your favor. Get over your insecurities as a nation and you will no longer feel insulted. It’s that simple.
    Doesn’t it seem irrational, anyway, to demolish buildings as a punishment for insulting? Makes no sense to me.

    “As for this guys hotels, assuming that they’re up to building code and not in an earthquake prone area, AND he hasn’t done anything illegal…” 

    Oh, give us a break, will you? My Turkish friends have told me that the quality of construction in Turkey is so bad and so much of it is illegal. Somehow you become so law-abiding when it comes to Mr. Nisanyan. Read the travelers’ reviews on Tripadvisor and other travel forums. They are so impressed. His properties are among the top rated hotels in the region. You must be thankful to Nisanyan for preserving the buildings and doing so much good for that tiny village and putting it on the tourist map. 
    Dear Resoman, so many well-traveled people don’t seem to think that the character of the buildings is destroyed. Quite the contrary. They think it is very-well preserved. Perhaps, once again, your standards of character preservation are different from others’. For example, turning a Byzantine cathedral into a mosque is preservation of Greek culture and character by Turkish criteria but is seen differently by the rest of the world.

    Robert, your problem is that you simply can’t tolerate seeing a successful Armenian. I remember having the same impression while reading your comments regarding the success of an Armenian physicist some time ago. Get over it for your own sake.

  14. Shame on the fascist Turkish government.

    How many times must reconciliation obsessed Armenians be reminded about the true intent of their so adorned country of Turkey?

    Nisanyan and his ilk can continue dreaming about the day when Armenians and Turks may live on equal footing in a tolerant Turkey. But let them never forget that the facts speak for themselves and without JUSTICE (land return and monetary compensation) there can be no trust between both peoples and therefore no peace.

    Nisanyan needs to wake up and realize that the most promising way forward for both country’s and their people is truth AND justice, nothing less.

  15. Nisanyan should’ve known better. He has been too naive to make all that investment of money, time, and talent in a country that shows no appreciation for it. 

  16. Hye, the Armenians improve the areas – no matter where in the world they may be – they advance and enhance all the lands that the Survivors fled to escape the Turkish Genocide of the Armenian nation.  In Asia, India, China and more there are still relics and churches which give evidence to the Armenians having been there… still.
    Too, in Turkey today, where Armenians are able, such as Nisanyan’s  improving the
    old relics to fine useful and improved properties.  Yet,Turks, these hordes from the Asian mountains – (whose only refined tastes are in their foods – this too, learned from those whom the Turks conqored, enslaved) are still destructive and of the lowest mentality of humans on God’s earth.  Turks have taken a religtion – Muslim – to suit their misdirected mentality – to harm and destroy peoples of the world… For a Turkey is still a Turkey.  Manooshag

  17. Why can not Sevan enjoy his privilage to be harassed and tortured by local authorities like any other respectable Turkish citizen who tries to build something?  Why is this so tied to his ethnic roots?  Similar difficulties are faced by many others, especially those who have been outspoken critics of governments, like Nesin.  He has, since childhood, someone who has always been at the edge, “kabina sigmaz”, and challenging authority and tradition.  He has had similar experiences by the way, outside of Turkey too.  Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar!

    In any case, his porject is very popular and liked and appreciated, and I am sure this will blow over unless he tries to turn it into a circus.

  18. “How many Turkish owned hotels are there in Armenia”? Are you kidding? Your people own nothing. Everything your people have has been stolen from someone else. Remember Turks are masters of murder, rape and theft. That is what you do best. You are truly “the sick man of Europe”. There is a reason for that wonderful title. Wear it well Efendee!

  19. Resoman: “On the other hand, we know many wealthy business people of Armenian origin.”
    And your point is?

  20. Murat,my simple answer to your question is that Sevan is a human rights activist while other respectable Turkish citizens in the same hotel trade are not.
    After the killing of Hrant Dink by Turkish 5th column far right we are very wary & worried that the same might happen to Sevan.In Turkey these killings are very easy as we’ve seen so many times.
    Look to what they are doing to Dogan Akhanli.
    Finally,these issues are openly discussed in the Turkish press & thanks God for that.
    Why don’t you ask your same question to the Turkish readers?Please do & let us see their answers.

  21. Murat, & the most important point overhere is that these three gentlemen raised the Armenian Genocide issue with the Turkish authorities.It has nothing to do with the ethnic roots of these people.Mind you Akhanli is a Turk.

  22. I would like to purchase a copy of the book Armenian Sport and Physical Gymnastics in the Ottoman Empire by Hayk Drmoyan, in Armenian, which was discussed in your paper  9/3/10 . How much is it and how can I get it? I checked at Borders to see if it could order it for me. They could not.
    Thank you.

  23. so, what can we do to help? because its one things to write good thoughts and to argue with the Ahmets and the Murats of this world, but what is our action plan? when do we actually start owning up?

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