COLOGNE, Germany (AP) _ Cologne's history of decline and recovery makes it a fitting backdrop for a summit that will focus on the modern world's most pressing problems: peace in Kosovo, nuclear disarmament and global financial crises.

For more than two millennia, the city has exemplified many of the Western world's greatest triumphs and defeats _ from the rise of the Roman empire to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer drew on Cologne's history during a meeting last week that drew up plans for Balkan reconstruction. Drawing parallels with the Marshall Plan that rebuilt a shattered Germany, Fischer cited the example of Cologne _ 90 percent destroyed by Allied bombs.

``The work begins now, and it won't be cheap,'' Fischer said. ``Let's look back at Cologne 50 years ago.''

The arrival this week of eight of the world's most powerful leaders highlights the city's postwar success: from a city left in ruins and abandoned by most of its residents to a cultural and industrial capital.

THE DOME

The Cologne skyline is commanded today _ as it has been for more than 700 years _ by the twin spires of the Cologne Dom, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe.

While bombs destroyed the adjacent train station during World War II, the cathedral survived. It was spared not out of any sense of historic significance, but rather by pilots who used the 515-foot-tall spires for navigation.

The cathedral _ which celebrated its 750th anniversary last year _ is testament to the city's patience. The cornerstone for the cathedral was laid in 1248 to house the relics of the magi and establish Cologne's right to crown German kings. It took 632 years to complete, with work stalled for centuries.

It remains the city's most impressive architectural achievement, attracting 20 million visitors every year.

THE IMAGE

Cologne has a reputation for defying German stereotypes.

``What is most interesting about Cologne is that one rarely describes the city, rather the people,'' says the regional governor, Franz-Josef Antwerpes.

Those people include a large immigrant population: 13 percent. The gay community is estimated at 50,000-80,000 in a city of 1 million residents.

Perhaps the reason the city itself gets so little attention is that besides the city's cathedral, 12 Romanesque churches and tiny medieval quarter, Cologne itself is nondescript, built in the spare Bauhaus style of postwar German cities.

Ah, but the resident are another matter. Germans love order, but the people of Cologne disdain authority. Germans are not known for their sense of humor, but people here pride themselves on their irreverence _ typified by the annual pre-Lenten Carnival celebration. Germany's best-known comedian and late-night talk show host, Harald Schmidt, broadcasts his Leno-style jabs at Germany's leaders from a Cologne studio.

THE HISTORY

The Roman emperor Claudius made Cologne a colony in 50 A.D. to honor the birthplace of his wife, giving the city its modern name.

Cologne flourished as a trading center for textiles and wine during the Middle Ages. After a period of decline, the city experienced an economic comeback with the production of a fragrance of flower blossoms distilled in almost pure alcohol, ``Eau de Cologne.''

Today, the city is Germany's contemporary art capital, featuring important galleries and an international arts fair. Cologne also has resumed its place as an industrial center _ home to Bayer pharmaceuticals and a Ford plant built by an agreement struck by Henry Ford himself and Cologne's prewar mayor, Konrad Adenauer.

THE SUMMIT

The leaders will be treated to the best of Cologne during their stay. They meet in the Dom's considerable shadow, in the Wallraf-Richartz and Ludwig museums, which house some of Germany's most important collections of old Masters, contemporary German paintings and American pop art. While their wives cruise along Rhine River, the leaders will have lunch in another museum housing the city's Roman treasures.

Emphasizing the best of Cologne also means hiding the worst: Unsightly construction sites have been shrouded. And with typical German attention to detail, workers have even scraped chewing gum from the Dom Square and the city's pedestrian walkways _ 260,000 pieces, according to the official count.