That’s the spirit – the Sumahan lives again

Our favourite city escape has just reopened. Andrew Finkel is heading straight for his Bosphorus-side Adirondack chair

By Andrew Finkel | July 14, 2020

The very words ‘hospitality industry’ have always struck me as not just an oxymoron but slightly sinister. In my mind’s eye I see dark satanic mills fuming suntan oil or holiday camp animators with surgically enhanced smiles. But of course it is exactly that US$ 35 billion tourism industry in Turkey which the Covid-19 pandemic has been forcing to its knees. Do I feel bad, deep down in my snobbish soul, that people are making their own fun instead of queuing up for a polluting flight across Europe, then queuing up again at the breakfast buffet on a beach-side, bed-factory hotel that never should have got planning permission in the first place? Well, in a curious way, I do.

I am all too aware there are restaurateurs and hoteliers for whom hospitality really does come from the heart rather than pre-packaged in a bottle. These are people who invested their lives and their savings into making something special. And it is that energy and creativity which the virus has threatened with its angry spikes. Will we be able to bask in the warmth of such commitment ever again?

I learn with great enthusiasm that Sumahan-on-the-Water, an intimate Istanbul hotel, has just reopened. I can recall when it first opened, exactly 15 years ago, the lifetime ambition of husband-and-wife architects Nedret and Mark Butler, whose family property it had been. It really did redefine what we meant by a boutique (rhymes with unique) hotel. At the time, one of the things that seemed so special was that it did not set out to emulate some ersatz, overstuffed Ottoman harem but remained loyal to the building’s original design, a mid-19th-century quayside distillery that made the raw spirit (suma) for rakı, the Ottoman’s favourite tipple. 

A garden room by the Bosphorus: Sumahan-on-the Water before lockdown in March. The skyline of the historic peninsula is framed by the First Bosphorus Bridge

It was private and luxurious, the service effortless – and it didn’t have to shout. After all, it offered an experience that was on offer nowhere else in the world: waking up in your own apartment of the very edge of the Asian side of the Bosphorus on its most scenic bend. The view was across the first bridge all the way to the historic peninsula.

Spirits factory-turned-luxury-waterside hotel (the lower wing on the right), the Sumahan in Çengelköy, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, photographed by Jürgen Frank for Cornucopia in 2005 when it had just opened

In the years that followed, Sumahan began to win award upon accolade, and spreads in every travel magazine and Sunday supplement known to man. When our own daughter eloped to the Beyoğlu registry office – exactly three years ago – we hired a fishing boat to scoop the newlyweds off a pier in Karaköy and take them up the Bosphorus to dinner at Sumahan. Along the way we were trailed by a pod of dolphins who obviously had a nose (an elongated one called a ‘rostrum’) for the special moment. At journey’s end, to the sound of the lapping wake of passing ships and to the sight of a sunset reflected in the watery expanse, we sat down to celebrate. 

The pandemic has robbed communities of lives and livelihoods but we will use our memories to rebuild, to emerge from our isolation and to start again. I haven’t been out much but I will make the trip to the newly re-opened Sumahan and will sit by the water’s edge. It was built to manufacture spirit and it will continue to do so again.


For the full story of the Sumahan Hotel and its creation, see The Spirit's Wake', by Patricia Daunt, with photographs by Jürgen Frank, in Cornucopia 34. Patricia Daunt's article also appears in her book The Palace Lady's Summerhouse'.

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