A boy tends to his father’s favorite cow as night falls at the vast open air market near Islamabad, where thousands of cows, bulls, goats and a few camels are being sold this week to be slaughtered for sacrifice at Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)

Azar Iqbal, 32, stroked his pretty white cow invitingly and adjusted the multicolored tassels arranged across her brow. “See how beautiful she is,” he called out as a stream of potential buyers wandered past. “Very gentle, very fresh. Only [$1,000].”

Deeper into the vast temporary encampment on the outskirts of Islamabad, Maqbool Meher, 45, paraded his prize cow in a tight circle for a customer. There was no more room amid the thousands of bulls and cows, goats and even a few camels, all on sale for sacrificial slaughter during Eid al-Adha, the three-day Muslim holiday that began Monday.

“This is my baby. I raised her from birth,” the turbaned farmer said with a paternal smile, surveying the noisy, crowded fairground Friday. “My happiness will be complete if she is sacrificed for Eid.”

For the past week, this enormous vacant field outside the orderly Pakistani capital has been transformed into a teeming mix of human and animal traffic, hucksterism and religious sentiment. Every seller is looking for an edge, every buyer for a trick. Both sides also seem to be swept up in the excitement of the holiday ritual, when Muslims the world over will slit the throat of an animal and distribute its meat to friends, relatives and the needy.

In the impoverished Islamic republic of 182 million, where the annual per capita income is about $1,500, most people can barely afford to buy a goat or sheep to sacrifice for Eid, but many families pool their resources and divide the cost and meat of a cow, which is both more economical and more prestigious. Sacrificial animals are being sold at hundreds of locations across the country. 

The biggest and most handsome Brahma bulls are the stars of the open-air bazaar at Pir Wadhai, and they can cost as much as several thousand dollars. Their owners gussy them up with garlands of tassels, bells, black eye makeup and sequined collars, an annoyance to which the burly beasts occasionally object by butting or kicking. 

Buyers are watchful for cheating, and most insist on inspecting each animal’s teeth to make sure that it is at least 2½ years old, the minimum age Islam prescribes for sacrificial slaughter. Agricultural officials are stationed at the camp, but reports about the spread of a tick-borne virus known as Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever have made buyers warier than usual. Some visitors on Friday were wearing surgical masks as they wandered among the rows of tethered animals, but most seemed unfazed.

“What I’m looking for is a beautiful animal at a reasonable price,” said Malik Imran, 34, a service manager for a telecommunications company, who is planning to share the cost of a cow with several relatives. “This is a special time in our religion, and we want a special animal, not an ordinary one.”

Eid al-Adha is an annual festival that commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim, the figure known as Abraham in the Bible, to follow God’s command to sacrifice his son Ishmael, who was later saved by an angel and lived to be 137. It is not to be confused with Eid al-Fitr, a separate festival that marks the end of Ramadan. In customary Islamic practice, the meat of the sacrificial animals is divided into thirds for family, friends and the poor. 

One of the most special animals being offered at Pir Wadhai this Eid is an otherwise ordinary brown-and-white cow whose owners claim that she has been favored by God because the letters of the prophet Muhammad’s name can be vaguely deciphered in the arrangement of brown spots on her white flank. On Friday, they were asking $1,500 for her but had not yet found a buyer.

There were expensive camels that loomed above the bustling scene, peering down at the crowd and occasionally dipping into sacks of feed at their feet. Mohammed Khan, 50, had brought three camels 100 miles by truck and set up his bedroll almost under their massive feet. If he was lucky, he said, he would sell one by Monday.

On a more modest scale, a shopkeeper named Hawaid, 28, said he was content with the sturdy bearded goat he had purchased for about $350, white and painted with orange polka dots. “It took me two weeks to find the right one,” he said as his young son petted the goat. “This is our religious duty, and this is what I can afford.”     

With the sun setting, the din of moos and bleats subsided as makeshift feeding troughs were filled and animals settled down to dinner. But the day was hardly over at the 24-hour bazaar, with pickup trucks bringing in still more cows from the countryside and buyers cramming goats into taxis and vans. Colored lights were strung from poles and switched on, and brightly garlanded cows were tethered in rows beneath them, much like a used-car lot.

By Monday, the dismantling of the camp would be underway, the unlucky sellers would load their remaining livestock into trucks, and the animals chosen for backyard sacrifices across the region would soon be silent forever.