Besa is an Albanian cultural precept, usually translated as "faith", that means "to keep the promise" and "word of honor". The only word in Shqip (language of the Eagle) that can be translated as 'faithful' is 'besnik', derived from besa. Besnik for men and Besa for women continue to be very popular names among the people of Shqiperia (land of the Eagle).
Some say that the word 'besa' traces back to the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini, a collection of laws which regulated the Albanian social, economic and religious lives, together with traditional customs and cultural practices of the Albanian society between 1400 to today. Besa is an important part of personal and familial standing and is often used as an example of "Albanianism". However, 'besa' as a cultural principle isn't a word Lek Dukagjini coined for the first time in the Kanun. 'Besa' has been an integral part of the Shqiptar (people of the Eagle), since time immemorial. It represents unity among the different indigenous tribes of that land. The unity of 'besa' ( a moral code that was deemed higher in value than any other imposed religious beliefs on that land) made it possible for the Shqiptar to survive the various forms of ethnic cleansing from various foreign invasions and hostile neighbours.
Besa also means taking care of those in need and being hospitable. During World War II, Albanians saved over 2000 Jews from Nazi persecution. Rather than hiding the Jews in attics or the woods, Albanians gave them clothes, gave them Albanian names, and treated them as part of the family. The concept of besa is incorporated into their culture. Before World War II only about 200 Albanians were Jewish. At the end of the war about 2000 Jews were living in Albania. An award-winning feature film documentary BESA: The Promise (2012) is about American photographer Norman H. Gershman's quest to tell the story of Besa and the Albanians who saved Jews during World War II. This story was featured on CBS News Sunday Morning on November 8, 2009 for the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, which occurred on November 9, 1938.
Besa related sayings include:
- Besa e shqiptarit nuk shitet pazarit (the honor of an Albanian can not be sold or bought in a bazaar)
- Shqiptaret vdesin dhe besen nuk e shkelin (Albanians would die rather than break honor)
- Besa e shqiptarit si purteka e arit (the Albanians' honor is worth more than gold)
Besa is a key theme in the novel Kush e solli Doruntinën (usually abbreviated in English to "Doruntine") (1980), by Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare.