Lucky dogs. They are laborers on the world's most hallowed restoration site, the Parthenon atop the Acropolis, ''the high city.'' The crew of eight stone lifters, crane operators and machinists is on a mid-morning work break, but in a few minutes it will return to the Doric columns and friezes to carry on the work of the ages.

It is a race with time, with time winning. The marbled serenities of the Acropolis have been cracking, chipping and crumbling. Plutarch wrote in the first century, after the Acropolis had been settled for 3,000 years, that it endured by the ''unfaltering breath of an ageless spirit.'' Today's breath is the marble-killer of air pollution.

Fumes from the factories of industrialized Athens mingle with the noxious spew from motor vehicles to create an atmospheric corroding as destructive as Alexander's army. At last count, 45 percent of Greece's 1.5 million cars, trucks and buses were in Athens. As much as 60 percent of the country's heavy industry is here.

In a land revered for its ancient thinkers, few thoughts were given until 1981 to how to prevent air pollution. The Socialist government of Andreas Papandreou was the first to have a full-time environmental minister. In the 1970s, with industries settling anywhere with no plans or controls, and new cars not required to have antipollution devices, Athens had become the most air-poisoned capital in Europe.

The city, though still addicted to automobiles, is on an environmental comeback that coincides with the restoration. In 1975, the Committee for the Preservation of the Acropolis Monuments was founded. Jutting skyward from the roofless center of the Parthenon is an electrically run crane that lifts the beams, blocks and stones into the cornices and colonnades from which they were taken.

The fragile Acropolis has been wearing away for reasons other than air pollution. Millions of tourists -- padding up the hill and pawing the monuments -- were one assault. The rocky ground was deteriorating from the footsteps. The rusting of iron joints installed in the 1930s was another disturbance.

A current goal is to dismantle the Parthenon, do what is chemically and architecturally necessary to preserve the marble, and have the reerection completed in 10 years. According to Melina Mercouri, the minister of culture, who is as close as modern Greece can come to embodying the spirit of Athena, the funds will be made available.

No doubt has ever existed that the Greek passion for restoration has been present. Rescuing the monuments dates to the 1820s, when the war of independence overthrew the four centuries of Ottoman rule and Turkokratia ended. Twenty years before, the most wanton looter of all had plundered the Acropolis: Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Constantinople. He asked the Turkish sultan in Athens for permission to make off with marbles from the monuments. Help yourself, said the Turk. One account of this heist says that Elgin, along with an earlier despoiler, ''did more harm to the monuments of Athens than the barbarians and the ravages of time.'' Worldwide pressure is building against the British marble-jackers to have the treasures returned.

The world ought to be protesting. Few parts of it have not been involved with the Acropolis. When the classical era ended, the pagan temples were taken over by the Christians. The Parthenon became a church, with the Virgin Mary replacing Athena Nike. In the 15th century, the Turks, under Mohammed the Conquerer, battled their way to the top of the Acropolis. A minaret was built, and the Parthenon became a mosque.

The Turks lasted four centuries, using the Acropolis as a fortress against such invaders as the Venetians and later the Greeks themselves. In the 1830s, the Bavarians arrived. For a Germanic moment, they thought of turning the Parthenon into a palace for King Otto. One hundred years ago, from 1885 to 1890, Greece, by then an independent state, began the work of conservation and restoration that has lasted until today.

Panayiotis Kavvadias, who directed the excavations in 1890 that revealed the original archaic structures of the Acropolis, wrote that Greece bequeaths the high city to ''the civilized world -- a testimony to the Greek genius, a venerable monument cleansed at last of all barbaric remnants.''

In another culture, this repository of beauty would probably not be as cherished as lovingly as it is by modern Athenians. They appear to have a natural appreciation for their Greekness, right down to the art of leisurely meal-taking. McDonald's, now in 42 countries and with more than 500 outlets in Japan alone, has yet to peddle a hamburger in Greece. Slow food, not fast food, is the treasure here. So are long conversations about music, literature and archaeology.

Any citizenry that can talk into the night about the differences between the early Kazantzakis and the late is naturally passionate about revering the early Athens.