A few years ago, Washington photographer Fred Maroon was talked out of doing a book on Latin America and into one on Egypt. At the time, he could not have known that Egypt would be one of the world's most popular countries among American readers by the time that book was published. But last night at the Kennedy Center, he was clearly enjoying the results of his lucky timing.

"Since Camp David, there has been an enormous increase in tourists, from the United States and from Israel," an Egyptian Embassy spokesman said last night at a reception marking the publication of Maroon's book, "The Egypt Story."

"They are coming in faster than we can find accommodations for them," he added. "We are building new first-class hotels in Cairo as fast as we can."

Maroon was the guest of honor at a reception given by the Egyptian Embassy last night in the atrium of the Kennedy Center, following a showing of film based on his still photos for "the Egypt Story." At the end of the evening, prompted by a fan's questions, he recalled the time, while he was taking photos for the book, that he had been a guest of the Egyptian government in one of its jails.

"It was in a town where a bomb had been set off a week earlier, killing 30 people," he said, "and they were still very nervous. When they saw me with a camera, I think I was mistaken for an Israeli spy - at least, I heard someone use the Arabic word for Israeli: 'Yehudi.'"

He laughed at one story that had been circulating during the party - that he had been held incommunicado for 48 hours. "It was only a few hours," he said, "and actually they treated me fairly well - much better than the Egyptians who were with me." Asked to compare Egyptian with American jails, he said he couldn't: "I have never been in an American jail." He added that he had heard some screaming but didn't know what it was about, because "I can't interpret Egyptian screams."

One reason Maroon had found his way to an Egyptian jail rather than one in Brazil or Argentina was that his friend Mohamed Hakki, minister of information at the Egyptian Embassy, persuaded him to visit Egypt with his camera instead.

"Egypt is the roots for everybody," said Maroon, whose parents were born in Lebanon. He added that Americans know very little about Egypt during the thousands of years between King Tut and the confrontations with Israel in recent decades. "They have 6,000 years of visual history that you can record with a camera," he said. "No other country has that."

The book fills in that enormous historic gap, while also dwelling at length and in color on Egypt's timeless landscapes: mountains, sand dunes, and the life on and along the Nile. In pictures and text (by an English expert on Egypt, P. H. Newby), it begins before the time of King Tut and even before the pyramids, and it follows the complex history and culture of the nation up to the present and its ambitious plans for the future.

Besides the sphinx and the pyramids, the book explores the Coptic religion, Egypt's unique branch of Christianity, the daily life of the people, the relics of Greek culture, which was planted in Egypt by Alexander the Great, the development of belief in one god by Akhenaton, and the pervasive culture of Islam.

Clearly impressed by the text which accompanies his pictures, Maroon said that Newby had avoided politics and written "a psychological history of the Egyptian."

His pictures, he said, had been mostly taken in the early hours of the morning, "from the time that the dark begins to fade until about an hour after sunrise. After that, the light gets too bright, the colors are bleached out, the dust starts rising and there are tourists everywhere."

There will be even more, no doubt, after his book gets into circulation. Egyptian Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal said that the book is "making people fall in love with Egypt even before they have seen it." CAPTION: Picture, Ambassador and Mrs. Ashraf Ghorbal and Fred Maroon, right; by Harry Naltchayan