Ancient Near Eastern cities were usually dominated by a single temple complex, which often covered a major part of the settlement. During the first to third centuries A.D., as cities were enriched by the lucrative caravan traffic linking the great empires of Rome and Parthia, some of the most ambitious temples ever constructed were built in the Levant, Syria, and northern Mesopotamia. The massive scale of these structures is partly a function of the traditional Near Eastern approach to temple design, based on a sanctuary surrounded by an enormous walled temenos, or compound. The sanctuary was the residence of the deity, while the temenos was where sacrifices took place and mass worship was performed by thousands of people. Many compounds had an elaborate monumental gateway (propylaea) approached by stairs. Inside the walls were colonnades and vast altars for animal sacrifice. Although their exteriors often look like Roman temples, the interior layout of sanctuary buildings was actually very Near Eastern, designed as a throne room for a deity, usually with a raised platform approached by stairs.
The earliest of these gigantic constructions was the Temple at Jerusalem, begun by Herod in 20 B.C. It was second in scale only to the Temple of the Sun at Hatra. Other immense buildings of this period include the Temple of Dushara and the “Great Temple” at Petra, the Temple of Jupiter-Hadad at Damascus (incorporated in the present Umayyad Mosque), the Temple of Artemis at Jerash, and the Temple of Bel at Palmyra. One of the greatest and most lavishly decorated is the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, where stones weighing up to a thousand tons were cut and dragged to create the massive temple platform.