on ('on; Egyptian An, Ant, Annu, probably pronounced An only, as this is often all that is written, a "stone" or "stone pillars"): Later called Hellopolis. The name On occurs only in Genesis 41:45, 50; Genesis 46:20. It occurs in one other place in the Septuagint (Exodus 1:11), where On is mentioned with Pithom and Raamses as strong cities which the Israelites built. Hebrew slaves may have worked upon fortifications here, but certainly did not build the city. On is possibly referred to as `ir ha-herec, in Isaiah 19:18 (see IR-HA-HERES). On may also be mentioned by Jeremiah (43:13) under the name Beth-shemesh. Ezekiel speaks of an Aven ('awen) (Ezekiel 30:17), where it is mentioned with Pibeseth (Bubastis). Aven in this passage is almost certainly the same as On in Genesis 41:45; Genesis 46:20, as the letters of both words are the same in the Hebrew. Only the placing of the vowel-points makes any difference. If there is a mistake, it is a mistake of the Massoretes, not of the Hebrew writer.
1. Location and Description:
There were two Ons in Egypt: one in Upper Egypt, An-res (Hermonthis); the other in Lower Egypt, An-Meheet (Brugsch, Geogr. Inschr., 254, 255, numbers 1217, a, b, 1218, 8708, 1225). The latter is the On referred to in the Bible. It lay about 20 miles North of the site of old Memphis, about 10 miles Northeast of the location of modern Cairo. It has left until this time about 4 square miles of ruins within the old walls. Little or nothing remains outside the walls.
On was built at the edge of the desert, which has now retreated some 3 or 4 miles eastward, the result of the rising of the bed of the Nile by sediment from the inundation, and the broadening of the area of infiltration which now carries the water of the Nile that much to the East. The land around On has risen about 10 ft., and the waters of infiltration at the time of lowest Nile are now about 1 1/2 ft. above the floor-level of the temple.
The history of On is very obscure, yet its very great importance is in no doubt. No clear description of the ancient city or sanctuary has come down to us, but there are so many incidental references, and so much is implied in ancient records, that it stands out as of the very first importance, both as capital and sanctuary. The city comes from the Ist Dynasty, when it was the seat of government, and indeed must have been founded by the Ist Dynasty or have come down to it from pre-historic time. From the IIIrd to the VIth Dynasty the seat of government was shifted from On to Memphis, and in the XIIth Dynasty to Diospolis. Throughout these changes On retained its religious importance. It had been the great sanctuary in the time of the Pyramid Texts, the oldest religious texts of Egypt, and judging from the evident great development of the temple of On at the time of the writing of the texts, the city must have antedated them by considerable time (Budge, History of Egypt, II, 83, 84, 108; Breasted, Development of Religion and Thought in Egypt, chapters i, ii). The myth of Osiris makes even the charge against Set for the murder of Osiris to have been preferred at Heliopolis (Breasted, op. cit., 34). This certainly implies a very great age for the sanctuary at On. It contained a temple of the sun under the name Ra, the sun, and also Atum, the setting sun, or the sun of the Underworld. There was also a Phoenix Hall and asacred object called a ben, probably a stone, and the origin of the name An, a "stone" or "pillar" (compare Breasted, op. cit., 76, 11, and 71). Though the XIIth Dynasty removed the capital to Diospolis, Usertsen I (Senwesret) of that Dynasty erected a great obelisk at On in front of the entrance to the temple. The situation of this obelisk in the templearea indicates that the great temple was already more than a half-mile in length as early as the XIIth Dynasty. The mate of this obelisk on the opposite side of the entrance seems not to have been erected until the XVIIIth Dynasty. Its foundations were discovered in 1912 by Petrie. Some scraps of the granite of the obelisk bear inscriptions of Thothmes III. A great Hyksos wall, also discovered by Petrie in 1912, exactly similar to that of the fortified camp at Tel el Yehudiyeh, 4 miles North, makes it quite certain that these usurpers between the Old Empire and the New fortified On as the capital once more. The manifest subserviency of the priests of On in the story of Joseph makes it most probable that the old capital at On had already been subjugated in Joseph's time, and that within this old fortification still existing Joseph ruled as prime minister of Egypt. Merenptah in his 5th year began to fortify On. Sheshonk III called himself "divine prince of Annu," and seems to have made On one of the greatest sanctuaries of his long reign. On still figured in Egyptian history in the rebellion against Ashurbanipal. The city has been deserted since the Persian invasion of 525 B.C. Tradition makes the dwelling-place of Joseph and Mary with the child Jesus, while in Egypt, to have been near Heliopolis.
The exploration of On was attempted by Schiaparelli, but was not carried out, and his work has not been published. In 1912 Petrie began a systematic work of excavation which, it is expected, will continue until the whole city has been examined. The only great discovery of the first season was the Hyksos wall of fortification. Its full import can only be determined by the continuance of the exploration.
M. G. Kyle