Indiana Jones and the City of David

The host of the History Channel's 'Cities of the Underworld' comes to scratch the surface of the history and conflict in Jerusalem's tunnels.

It's a sunny winter's day in Jerusalem. Don Wildman, host of the American History Channel's documentary series "Cities of the Underworld," emerges from the underground tunnels of the City of David, his jeans soaked to the thighs.

Wildman, in a military-style jacket and worn jeans, changes from his sandals into heavy walking shoes. This is what he wore while wandering beneath cities like Naples, Prague, Dublin and Tokyo, and that is how he now is clad in Jerusalem. This episode, it was decided during the shooting, would open the series' second season.

In these clothes, he looks like a modern Indiana Jones. He says he actually feels like a character from "Mission Impossible."

"I get the information about the episode we are about to shoot in a mysterious e-mail that threatens to destroy itself when I'm done reading," he says, laughing.

Wildman is neither an archeologist nor a historian (he calls himself "a history nut"). He is an actor by training who has spent the past few years working mainly as a TV show moderator. He used to work with the ESPN Channel and the Travel Channel.

He learned about the tunnels below the City of David - which are between 2,700 and 3,800 years old, and "the most excavated place on earth" as the site's public relations official says - just before the mission began.

Wildman was a little wary of doing this episode, he admits, in part because it involves so many days of filming - 22 in all - at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Western Wall tunnels, the Dead Sea and Qumran, among other sites.

"We are very A.D. oriented and you live in the days of Moses. The farthest we go back to is George Washington. I tried to catch up in my hotel room by reading the Bible, searching the Web, reading Wikipedia," he says.

On-scene experts explain the remainder to him. They are impressed by his ability to say on camera, with authority and self-assurance, things he was told just a moment before.

"This is rich TV," he says.

'Young archeology'

During the first season, which was a great success by the channel's standards, he is seen marveling at the underground cities, with many cries of "wow!" and "Oh my God!" The program is quick-paced. The series is filmed with three shoulder cameras and one camera on a crane. The shots are edited to transition from the above-ground city to below. Wildman moves through the narrow tunnels, panting dramatically.

This kind of TV is also known as "young archeology," he says.

"It has the look and feel of MTV. It attracts a young audience" - exactly the audience the History Channel is looking for.

"The History Channel knows its viewers have seen all the World War II documentaries and are ready for something else," Wildman says. His program has succeeded in drawing the most coveted demographic sector of all - 18- to 35-year-olds (to which he no longer belongs - "Write that I'm in my forties"). Some of the show's viewers are heavy computer users, and do not watch television.

"My nephew says that I look pissed off and that's cool," he says proudly. "On the other hand, my sister tells me to stop moving around all the time."

The History Channel decided to produce a second season of "Cities" due to the success of the first season, which was broadcast on the History Channel in Israel, too.

"The producers called me and said they had some good news and some bad news. The good news was that they were renewing the show for another season, and the bad was that I wouldn't be home at all. Since July I haven't been back to the States," he says.

He came to Israel from Belize ("from the culture of the Maya to ancient biblical history," he says), along with his wife, a former Broadway dancer he met while she was appearing in "The Lion King." She went to visit Petra, Jordan, while he filmed in the City of David.

Before that, they were in Vietnam, Tokyo, Prague and Dublin, among other places.

"The big suits from headquarters sit thousands of miles away and tell us how they think the show should look," he says, "and then we work on it, and it comes out the exact opposite," he says.

Mixed feelings

The Jerusalem site leaves him with mixed feelings. He is impressed with the historical impact of the tunnels, but surprised by the way they have been maintained. "If we were in the United States, we would have a railing and it would be lit tenderly ... Maybe there would be a bench," he says, commenting comically about the commercialization of the United States. But for his crew, this lack of infrastructure is merely an advantage.

"The program likes danger," he says. "They want things to go wrong ... We don't like safe TV. We want you to feel the immediacy of it all, and in Belize, we came out of these ancient sacrificial caves with 25 mosquito bites on each leg. We like to get dirty."

In all the scenes, he is seen walking quickly without pausing. In reality, as is usual with TV filming, everything happens much more slowly. The tall producer, in a spotless white shirt, doesn't look like someone who likes to get dirty, and certainly stands out in the Jerusalem environment.

While waiting for one of the shots, in the Siloam tunnel, the escorts give Wildman an oral summary about the prophesy of Isaiah and Hezekiah. In the background, the voice of the muezzin echoes. An ultra-Orthodox Jew descends the steep stairs, in order to dip himself in the water. The women with the production crew are expected to make way for him to pass. The tunnel is under the authority of the Waqf, signs in Arabic read at the site. Above the pool where the ultra-Orthodox man is taking a dip, against the background of the muezzin's calls, is a school for the children of Silwan. A surreal picture, perhaps typical of Jerusalem.

Wildman's stories about the mosquitoes in Belize, which he presents as the dangers in filming this series, leads one to feel that he does not fully understand the dangers and sensitivity involved in filming a show about the impressive archeological site, a site which used to be a tremendous advantage for the beleaguered city, and today lies in a disputed area, below the neglected neighborhood of Silwan. It seems he does not know what intense feelings and conflicts are hidden there. He is the first to admit that.

"I am staying now at the Ambassador Hotel on Nablus Street, which is totally different from the King David, and I'm just beginning to understand the profound differences. Jerusalem was always this big puzzle to me. Being from a Quaker family from New Jersey, I found it difficult to differentiate between the two [East and West Jerusalem]. I'm sure your average American Joe doesn't have the faintest idea."

Wildman was asked whether he had been affected by the "Jerusalem syndrome" yet. After being told that this included being blinded by the holiness of the place, and finally going mad, he says yes.

"And if the opinion of some jerk from TV means anything, then I think things here will work themselves out," he says.