Babylon, a city of both history and legend, has been seriously damaged by war and development, and those remain the two major threats to the ancient city. The U.S. war in Iraq continues to endanger Babylon and other ancient sites in Iraq, and Iraqi officials' own plans for post-war Babylon could be just as destructive.

Desperate Iraqi citizens aren't the only ones destroying their country's patrimony. In 2003, American troops committed even greater sacrilege: building a helipad atop a mound of mud-brick debris in the ruins of ancient Babylon. Heavy vehicles rumbled over centuries-old pavements, trenches were dug into artifact-filled soil, and carved figures in the Ishtar Gate were destroyed by soldiers prying out bricks for souvenirs.

The most fabled of ancient cities, Babylon has occupied this prime Mesopotamian site on the Euphrates river since the 3rd millennium B.C. In the 18th century B.C. it was the capital of Hammurabi's empire, where the world's first code of law was written. Under Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B.C.), the city was transformed into a brilliant capital, with such landmarks as the Etemenanki ziggurat, the Ishtar Gate, and the Hanging Gardens, named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (though some historians believe those were actually in Nineveh). Even under Persian rule, Babylon was an administrative capital and center of learning, especially astronomy and mathematics. Twice it was the largest city in the world -- from 1770 to 1670 B.C. and from 612 to 320 B.C., with a population that may have topped 200,000. In the ancient world, that would have been huge.

Babylon had lain abandoned for centuries, its sunbaked bricks carted away until only foundations remained. Then in 1985, Saddam Hussein started rebuilding on top of the old ruins, ordering a combination of restoration and new construction to duplicate the city of Nebuchadnezzar -- a copy, granted, but with that special Hussein flair. He erected an immense picture of himself and Nebuchadnezzar at the entrance to the ruins, and had his own name inscribed on building bricks, just as that ancient ruler had done, horrifying many archaeologists. The Ishtar Gate was recreated, and the ceremonial stone boulevard leading from it, Processional Way, was restored. Hussein built a ziggurat-style palace for himself over some old ruins, and was just about to string a cable car over Babylon when war broke out (since the downfall of Hussein, the work has ground to a halt).

At first the presence of U.S. troops protected Babylon from looters, but soon the protectors were causing more trouble than they were preventing. U.S. Marines lived in Saddam's palace, and the rest of the city was turned into a military depot, which was transferred to Polish forces in September 2003. World outrage, however, prompted the occupying forces to return the site to Iraq's antiquities officials in January 2005.

Iraqi leaders have spun ideas for continuing Hussein's rebuilding project once the war is over, creating a new cultural center with shopping malls, hotels, and perhaps a theme park-why not? Archaeologists are already shaking their heads.

It is not advisable to travel to Iraq at the present time.