Two grizzled workers bent under a heavy sun to pick at a mound of bricks with their trowels. They scraped the dirt loose and took a broom to whisk it away, then sought an archeologist's map for a look at what lay underneath.
"Where is the map?" shouted one to the other. "The map is more important than my blood, and even the blood of my mother."
The two had bared what may have been another little protrusion of the southern palace of Babylon built during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th century B.C., when this dusty evacuation site was a magnificent city that historians called the most beautiful and prosperous of its time.
About 750 Iraqi workers are digging, picking and sweeping through the ancient ruins here in a massive project to save from the ravages of time, water, salt, bugs and plunderers what little remains of their splendor.
A visitor to Babylon, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, finds it zig-zagged with conveyor belts carrying away to trucks and carts the saline earth that surrounds the ruins and has corroded much of them away during the centuries.
Some carts get pulled away to dumps by tractors. Others run along narrow-gauge rails, pushed from behind by turbaned laborers. The work goes on at 17 sites, 16 hours a day, seven days a week, across the flat expanse where Babylon was once one of the Seven Wonders of the World, according to the ancient Greeks.
THE PLACE LOOKS more like an open-pit mine than the glorious city guarded by statues of kions that historians say it was. Only one of the lions remains, and its head was knocked off and carted away by Germans at the turn of the century.
The Procession Street where New Year's parades were the occasion for pomp and fast more than 2,500 years ago looks like the overgrown driveway of an untended European castle.
The tower of Babel recorded in the Bible -- experts say it actually was a sort of tiered pyramid called a ziggurat -- has left only impressions in the ground. Like much of the rest of Babylon, the tower fell victim to a harsh climate, salty soil and the greed of nearby residents who pilaged the mud and clay bricks to build surrounding cities in more recent centuries.
BABYLON HAS KNOWN hard times before. It first flourished as the capital of Hammurabi, who ruled a vast empire from 1792 to 1750 B.C., and entered history as the first to issue a legal code to govern his subjects.
About a thousand years later, the Assyrians destroyed Babylon and founded their own empire. But Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt it even more grandly during his reign.
The ruins being excavated are what remains of his epoch, little brick walls and stone walkways scraped out of the hard, dry earth. Archeologists also have discovered a few traces of Hammurabi's Babylon. But they lie much deeper under the soil and below a table of water that has done much to erode the later ruins.
Since Nebuchadnezzar's day, the Greeks under Alexander the Great, the Romans, several Moslem dynastics from Baghdad, the Ottoman Turks and European powers all came here. Babylon remained, sinking deeper into the wind-blown dust as the centuries went by.
ALI MOHAMMED MEDHI, an archeologist who is field engineer for the Iraqi government's Babylon restoration project, is resolved to change that. For the last 19 months, he had been running the excavation from a little office where he studies charts and sleeps most nights on an iron cot.
"We are trying to restore Babylon to the way it was, one of the Seven Wonders of the World," he said. "Babylon is a special place. World civilization springs from Babylon. It's worth all the attention we give it."
The Iraqi government is spending about $6 million a year for the 10-year project to explore the ruins scientifically, preserve as many as possible and restore them artificially when necessary with building materials similar to those used millennia ago.
The effort flows from increased pride and Iraqi nationalism fostered by President Saddam Hussein's Arab Baath Socialist Party rule and fueled by an estimated $14 billion this year in oil revenues.
"Anything we want, we get," said Mehdi, smiling from behind his thick glasses. "Not a million or two, but whatever we want, without limits."
In another reflection of Iraqi pride, the project has an entirely Iraqi sta-f -- the 750 workers along with more than 50 archeologists and other specialists.
The organized sifting marks that first complete scientific study of the entire site. German archeologists, particularly Robert Goldway, dug in the ruins at the turn of the century. But they based most of their conclusions on extrapolations from small sample findings, some of which have turned out to be misleading.
The traditionally accepted site of Babylon's hanging gardens, for example, has been thrown into doubt. Indeed, Iraqi experts now believe the gardens were terraced rather than hanging in any case.
"The spot [identified by early archeologists] actually was a granary," said Dr. Behnam Abu Suf, head of the government's General Antiquities Establishment in Baghdad. "We don't have any written or archeological proof it really was there."
In addition, Mehdi's team has found what he called a "library" with more than 3,000 oblong cuneiform tablets including the ancient equivalent of textbooks, language studies and descriptions of ancient Babylonian religious observances following annual cycles.