Ethiopian adventure

In the latest installment of his “Digging for the Truth” series, The History Channel’s Josh Bernstein does not actually unearth the Lost Ark of the Covenant. And, if he had, one suspects we wouldn’t first be hearing about it on a basic cable channel.

Luckily for Bernstein — and his viewers — getting there turns out to be more than half the fun. The show manages to prop up its wickedly telegenic host in front of a number of equally telegenic locales: on camelback atop Mt. Sinai, scaling through the crypts of Jerusalem, paddling a reed canoe in Ethiopia and barreling across a flooded river in a rickety jeep.

In past episodes Bernstein, an outdoorsman and survival expert, has sifted through the deep back stories of Egypt and ancient Rome before setting his sights on Indiana Jones territory with the Ark. And, to Bernstein’s credit, his first mention of Dr. Jones comes all of 14 seconds into the program, which premieres on Monday, Jan. 31.

The host manages to avoid snakes, Nazis and giant boulders, but one has a hard time thinking he chose his wardrobe — a broad-brimmed hat and brown leather coat — completely coincidentally. Unlike Jones, however, Bernstein seems to favor Teva sandals.

The New York-born outdoorsman’s rugged, Semitic good looks may well attract television viewers who don’t know the Ark of the Covenant from Noah’s Ark from Noah’s Bagels. But, for the rest of us, it’s a good thing he’s put together a halfway decent show.

While one can’t help but feel Bernstein’s journeys to Mt. Sinai and Jerusalem were slapped on to give the show even more of a globetrotting feel, the action really takes off when he lands in Ethiopia, where some historians believe the ark once resided — or still does.

The Ethiopian portion of Bernstein’s show swirls out of his control.

And, much like our recent Bay Area blues, you can blame it all on the rain.

A downpour begins to fall on Bernstein and his crew just after he ascends to an Ethiopian monastery on top of a mesa that can only be accessed via ropes. It is unclear what, if any, information he gleans about the ark from the bemused Ethiopian monks. What becomes painfully clear, however, is that a rapid evacuation is called for.

Bernstein and crew scramble down the side of the mesa, yet find themselves trapped in “bandit country” by swelled and roaring rivers, forcing the aforementioned mad dash across the water.

And, much as lightning and thunder rolled when Indiana Jones unearthed the ark in the cinema, a mammoth storm blows in when Bernstein visits a remote Ethiopian island that allegedly served as

the Ark’s home for eight centuries.

After viewing a stunning array of ancient Jewish artifacts collected on the island, Bernstein finds himself in nightmarish conditions onboard a rusting boat that only needed George Clooney sporting a scraggly beard and grimy Red Sox cap to complete “The Perfect Storm” metaphor.

While it is possible that Bernstein and his editors played up the danger the crew found itself in, the frenzied outburst of an Ethiopian sailor upon spotting land — the kind of reaction a non-actor just could not pull off — leads one to believe that the peril was quite authentic.

From there, Bernstein travels to an Ethiopian city some claim still serves as the home of the Ark and visits the ridiculously small shrine only the “guardian of the Ark” is allowed to enter.

This leads the host to exclaim that he has come as “close to the Ark as anyone can.” Really? You mean every historian believes the Ark resides in a backwoods Ethiopian town in a building the size of a single-story suburban home? As enjoyable as it is to watch Bernstein traipse through Africa and nearly get himself killed in the process, it might be worthwhile to interview an archaeologist or two who casts a shade of doubt on the Ark’s whereabouts.

But, considering Bernstein et al. nearly ended up as relics themselves, we’ll keep our complaints to a minimum.

“Digging for the Truth: Hunt for the Lost Ark” premieres 9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 31, on The History Channel.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.