In the midst of chaos and war in Iraq, one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world—a bedrock of human civilization— is the focus of determined preservation efforts.

I first saw Babylon, or part of it, driving back and forth past it during the United States–led siege of Najaf, Iraq, in August 2004. On the way south from Baghdad, a part of the ancient city is briefly visible as a large mound between date-palm plantations. It comes soon after one passes through the so-called Death Triangle of Sunni towns south of Baghdad, and you pass it shortly after you feel you can stop lying down on the back seat of your car pretending to be ill or asleep. So Babylon marks a good feeling, like a sweet gasp of fresh air: safety, and the delightful freedom of being able to look out a moving window.

Immediately the irony dawns. Safety?Hardly. Freedom?Forget it—possibly the greatest destination on earth is just behind those trees and you can’t even pull off the road for a look. One of the tragedies for a foreigner in Iraq is to be where history began, to be surrounded as nowhere else by places so important in the evolution of human thought and the web of social existence, and to have so little freedom to explore it all. But where Iraq takes away, it also gives. Faith, folly, sacrifice, grandeur, blood, vanity, greed, memory: where else are the sinews of history as visible under the skin of a place?

The same circumstances—the chaos and the fear—that make Iraq’s treasures so inaccessible are exactly those that make the place so significant. Why can I not get inside the national museum in Baghdad?Because the director has fled to Damascus. He is a Christian and the hardcore Shias don’t like him or all his pre-Islamic idols and trinkets. What is inside the museum?Just objects, things that tell the story of a hundred states and dynasties and religions that warred and died and survived across the Mesopotamian plain. Yes, that is what those dusty objects are about: history and conflict, the birth pangs and death pangs of empires, epochs, and ideas.

Just to pass Babylon that first time was a thrill. The Pyramids, Angkor, Machu Picchu, and the Parthenon—none of them became ideas as well as places, or did as much as Babylon to shape so much of the subsequent world. Fifty miles south of Baghdad, in a province still called Babil, the ghosts of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar are there today, waiting out their thousandth war where the latest round of empires, dynasties, and faiths inscribe their stories on the dusty floodplain of central Iraq.

Last summer, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities & Heritage in Baghdad invited me to be among the first foreign reporters since Saddam’s day to visit the ruins. About 35 Iraqi archaeologists were at work, backed up by 180 Archaeological Police officers. Most of the site, about 2,000 acres, is surrounded by barbed wire. American forces were there for four months during and after the 2003 invasion, and the directorate is still angry about their alleged treatment of the site. The soldiers poured gravel for a parking lot over ground that might have valuable material beneath it, the director told me when I met him in Baghdad. They used rubble-rich earth for their sandbags and parked helicopters on top of a buried structure.

The Babylon of Hammurabi, a city that flourished around 1800 B.C., is still underground. On top of it is the city of Nebuchadnezzar II, from the sixth century B.C. The southern part is mostly an older version of what was left after about 20 years of meticulous excavation by the Germans between 1899 and 1917: a scruffy graveyard of trenches and crumbling brick walls. In a cool vault 15 feet underground there is a group of chambers believed by the Germans to have housed the waterworks for the city’s Hanging Gardens—the second wonder of the ancient world. The Iraqi archaeologists at Babylon no longer have the time, manpower, or funds for much new digging; their effort is mostly given to maintaining and protecting what has already been uncovered. On a wall underground, a Salvadoran soldier has written his name and the words ZAPATOR DE COMBATE. Nearby there are used packets from the Americans’ ready-to-eat meals, promising delights such as Menu No. 4: Country Captain Chicken. As I turned on my flashlight and moved deeper into the cool vault, one of the excavators cautioned me to go no farther. "Snakes," he said, "and scorpions." Indiana Jones, eat your heart out, I thought. But only a pair of doves flew out past me in a frightening flurry of beating wings.

Babylon’s adjacent Southern Palace, infamously reconstructed by Saddam in the 1980’s, looks very different. A maze of chest-high walls has been constructed over the fragmentary lines of mud brick that the Germans so carefully exposed. On the far side of these, in the great spaces of Nebuchadnezzar’s court, Saddam’s walls rise 40 feet in the air. Archaeologists are furious about the reconstructions, which trampled much of value in the soil and sealed it all up under Saddam’s clumsy grandiosities. The new bricks all bear Saddam’s name—stamped on them like the old kings stamped some of their bricks, stamped on them like brutality is stamped into this aching nation.

Over a cup of tea, two of the resident archaeologists talked with me about the site’s meaning, its permanence. "The thought, the ideas, the civilization has been transferred from the Babylonians to the Greeks to the Romans to the Arabs to Islam and all the way to today," one of them said. They insisted that Saddam would be forgotten in a thousand years, but not Hammurabi. Then they said they would like to invite me home for tea or supper, but they did not want to get us all killed.

Whenever it is that Saddam will be forgotten, his grotesque walls are there now, like the gravel parking lot of the U.S. troops, and some traces will remain many centuries from now: just more detritus from the latest waves of empire and violence to crash upon the shores of this hard, inspiring, essential country.

No doubt the huge walls at Babylon are a crime against posterity, but inwardly I confess I’m grateful for them. The towering walls make the palace’s huge spaces seem even larger and give the courts and the throne rooms contours that I can understand. When a hot wind swirls around the vast empty courtyards, it is easy to imagine the same wind plucking at the hem of the gown of some great king. Did this wind whistle for Hammurabi?I ask myself. Hearing the sound of footsteps in a passage behind me, I think of Belshazzar: was there anything of that spookiness, loneliness, and vulnerability when he sat down here for his last feast, in 539 B.C.?That was the night of the handwriting on the wall: "You have been weighed in the balances," it said, according to Daniel, "and found wanting." Belshazzar did not know it then, but Persian invaders had already breached Babylon’s walls, as they had done before the time of Hammurabi—and have done since. Members of the local SWAT team, five miles away in the provincial capital of Hilla, say they fight Iranian intruders in the surrounding towns and villages every week or so.

The Ishtar Gate—minus hundreds of yards of its colored tile that have been in Berlin since the early 20th century—runs along the east side of the palaces. The Lion of Babylon, its nose reputedly broken off by Turkish soldiers looking for treasure during the 1920’s, sits on the other side. And a few hundred yards away from the tidy digs and reconstructions, in the middle of boggy, broken land, there is a mound so low that one sees it only after closing to within 20 or 30 yards: the tiny remains of the great ziggurat of Babylon. The murky and overgrown ditch that surrounds its four sides like a moat shows why the tower cannot be excavated: Iraq’s high water table would erode any foundations the excavators uncovered. If you push through the head-high reeds at its base, leap across a narrow part of the moat, and scramble up 10 feet of dark, chunky, weedy earth, you end up on top of what remains of the Tower of Babel. You are where man aspired to something greater by building his tower that "reaches to the heavens" and where God made diversity and incomprehension—where he "confused the languages"—the eternal punishment for this presumption.

Looking down on the Tower and the Hanging Gardens and the throne rooms from a huge man-made mound about half a mile away is a giant palace built by Saddam in the 1990’s. Inside, every light switch and doorknob has been stripped away, and the walls in the big empty rooms bear graffiti in Arabic, English, Spanish, Polish, and Mongolian: I LOVE KIRSTY, CHICOS MALOS CHILE, and so on. Someone has written REJOICE, O YOUNG MAN, IN THY YOUTH. I see this piece of graffiti all over Iraq. It often looks like it has been written by someone who does not write frequently in Latin script. The words come from Ecclesiastes, by way of Platoon, and I find them haunting. What young man?Me?Rejoice?How?

Saddam built the hill and the palace where he could look down on the ghosts of Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar, and Alexander, and now the palace’s windows have been blasted open and a basketball net droops cockeyed above marble floors dirty with dust and the excrement of birds. It was there, not atop the little muddy mound off in a boggy field far below, that at last I felt as if I had seen the Tower of Babel; high up above the plain, where the hubris of man had held sway, there was now only silence and echoes of the babble of many tongues.

Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon by Austen Henry Layard (first published 1853; Gorgias, 2002)

Foundations in the Dust: A Story of Mesopotamian Exploration by Seton Lloyd (1947; Thames & Hudson, 1980)

The Histories by Herodotus

Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux (1964; Penguin, 1992)