By Khalid al-Ansary
BABYLON, Iraq, Feb 11 (Reuters) - For a site whose historical importance ranks with Egypt’s Pyramids, the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon has suffered some rough treatment.
In recent times, U.S. troops and allied armies have parked tanks and weapons on the site in southern Iraq and used earth containing ancient fragments to fill their sandbags.
Looters ransacked its treasures, and before that Saddam Hussein "restored" parts of it using new bricks bearing his name and built a kitsch palace overlooking it.
Now officials hope Babylon can be revived and made ready for a rich future of tourism, with help from experts at the World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the U.S. embassy.
"The Future of Babylon" project launched last month seeks to "map the current conditions of Babylon and develop a master plan for its conservation, study and tourism", the WMF says.
"We don’t know how long it will take to reopen to tourists," said Mariam Omran Musa, head of a government inspection team based at the site. "It depends on funds. I hope that Babylon can be reborn in a better image."
Fabled home of the Hanging Gardens, one of the wonders of the ancient world, and lying in a region ancient historians call the cradle of civilisation, Babylon was badly damaged during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to overthrow Saddam.
Looters had been plundering the ancient site, about 85 miles (135 km) south of Baghdad for centuries, but the pillage accelerated rapidly after the invasion, when thousands of other archaeological sites in Iraq were also targeted.
The ruins of the once mighty city are a far cry from the Babylon of popular imagination, with its magnificent golden gate and lush gardens cultivated by King Nebuchadnezzar for his wife.
Its clay-brick walls are crumbling, a statue of the Lion of Babylon has all but lost its facial features and European imperial powers long ago looted the best of Babylon. The Ishtar Gate has been in Berlin since German archaeologists seized it before World War One, despite calls for its return.
Officials say preserving Babylon, a relic of a time and place that gave birth to such milestones of civilisation as agriculture, writing, codified law and the wheel, is crucial.
"It’s extremely important. When people say this (region) is the cradle of civilisation, that’s certainly true of Babylon," Lisa Ackerman, WMF vice-president, told Reuters in a telephone interview. "It’s a culture that had a profound impact on what we think of as modern civilisation."
It may also help war-racked Iraq generate revenue in the future through tourism, as it seeks to rebuild after years of sectarian slaughter and attacks by insurgents.
Religious tourism to Iraq’s Shi‘ite Muslim holy sites has boomed since the fall of Saddam, but the country still has a long way to go, and security will have to be vastly improved before it can start to dream of luring Western tourists.
Babylon, and places such as the southern marshes believed to be the biblical Garden of Eden, could eventually be major attractions.
The U.S. military occupied Babylon as a base for five months before handing over to a Polish-led division which left in 2005.
The British Museum said in a report that U.S. and Polish military vehicles had crushed 2,600-year-old pavements and their forces had used archaeological fragments to fill sandbags.
"They dug trenches for storing gas by the Babylon theatre," said Maitham Hamza, who keeps the site’s two museums. "They also crushed walls by landing helicopters on them."
The U.S. embassy in Baghdad is contributing $700,000 towards the site’s restoration.
Saddam Hussein’s insensitive reconstructions also pose a dilemma for efforts to restore Babylon. Apart from his palace, he also rebuilt Processional Way, a street of ancient stones.
And he painted on it. A mural of King Nebuchadnezzar in blue and gold, with a suspiciously Saddam-like face, adorns one wall; a tacky cartoon lion, another. He built an artificial lake in what critics called the "Disneyfication" of Babylon.
Ackerman said one of the first things the WMF would do was establish whether underground water was present and erect barriers to prevent it from seeping into the ruins and damaging the clay bricks.
But Saddam’s alterations might be best left alone.
"One approach is: people have been doing things to Babylon for centuries, if not millennia, so we can accept Saddam Hussein’s changes as part of the life of Babylon."
Eventually, if security in Iraq continues to improve, officials hope tourists will return.
"We are optimistic about ‘ruins tourism’ in Iraq," Qais Hussein Rasheed, acting head of Iraq’s Committee of Antiquities and Heritage, told Reuters.
"God willing, we could surpass Jordan and Egypt’s tourism." (Writing and additional reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Michael Christie and Andrew Dobbie)